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Wednesday / February 22

How Much Are Your Students Capable of Understanding?

How Much Are Your Students Capable of Understanding?

Do you teach for conceptual understanding that transfers? Perhaps you refer to conceptual understandings as ‘Big Ideas,’ ‘Central Ideas,’ ‘Statements of Inquiry’ or ‘Generalizations.’ How many of these understandings are you aiming for in a unit? One? Three? I believe students are capable of more! Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction promotes clear articulation of five to nine understandings for each unit, depending on the length and scope of the unit as well as the age of the students. If a unit warrants six to eight weeks of learning time, how could we possibly justify developing only one generalization?

Let’s take a closer look at what this might mean in the context of a unit. Perhaps you have developed a unit around the topic of ‘Inventions and Inventors’ with a conceptual lens of innovations. You may have a single generalization: “Inventors and innovators look for ways to improve people’s lives by solving a problem or meeting a need.” So, where do the additional conceptual understandings come from?

A unit web is a useful tool to create an overview of the content and for drawing out concepts that will be used to write generalizations. Developing the web serves as a prewriting or brainstorming activity. Unit developers begin by identifying the strands within the unit of study. For interdisciplinary units, the strands are the subject areas that will be included. In an intra-disciplinary unit, the strands will be major headings, which divide the unit into manageable parts. Strands are placed in a web around the unit title, and the related sub-topics and concepts are listed below each strand (Erickson, Lanning and French, 2017).

How Much Are Your Students Capable of Understanding


Once the web is complete, we can begin to write generalizations which are derived from the relationships between the concepts found under each of the web strands. We write one or more generalization for each of the strands in the web.

In the example above, the ‘driving’ discipline in the unit is Science, so most of the generalizations in the unit will come from that strand. Here are some possible generalizations:

Students will understand that…

  • throughout the process of inventing, the original idea undergoes change
  • innovations meet or create a consumer demand
  • innovations improve an existing product by making it faster, stronger, cheaper, easier, safer, more efficient, attractive, useful, accurate, fun, or productive
  • sometimes inventors or innovators need to try and test many different solutions to solve a problem
  • inventors measure carefully to scale for an accurate representation during product design
  • biographers use charts, photographs, and timelines to help the reader interpret significant events in a person’s

When teachers only develop one generalization for a unit, the idea is often so macro and broad that the unit sacrifices disciplinary depth of understanding. In developing five to nine generalizations for a unit, depending on the grade level, scope, and unit length, teachers ensure greater breadth and depth of learning (Erickson, Lanning and French, 2017)

While there are many benefits to interdisciplinary learning, we must be mindful of maintaining the integrity and rigor of each discipline. There is an inherent risk when developing interdisciplinary units that generalizations, guiding questions, and assessments are focused on the “driving” discipline at the expense of other subjects. Without careful curriculum articulation, all too often standards are “dropped in” to lessons as activities. Ultimately, students’ conceptual understanding of critical knowledge, processes, and skills can be compromised. To avoid this problem, I strongly advocate for parallel units where the learning experiences support an interdisciplinary unit, but students are focused on understanding key knowledge, skills, and processes of a given discipline.

You will notice in the web above that there are several concepts under the language arts strand that were not developed within the interdisciplinary unit generalizations. To develop an understanding of strategies and skills in language arts avoiding ‘drop in’ activities, I would recommend developing a separate parallel unit on biographies. The text selected could be biographies of famous inventors and the unit would support students in accessing further knowledge about inventions and inventors. However, when teachers develop parallel units, they are taking the opportunity to develop the knowledge, processes, and skills of that subject while maintaining the depth of understanding and honouring the discipline.

Within English language arts and mathematics students need opportunities to sequentially and rigorously develop an understanding of knowledge, processes, and skills specific to the discipline. Running parallel units provides opportunities to apply the skills and knowledge in interdisciplinary units for reinforcement and transfer. In the second edition of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, you can find an example of two parallel lesson plans where students are supported in understanding how to inference in preparation to successfully apply and practice the strategy to their social studies.

The ideas presented in this blog come from the second edition of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom by H. Lynn Erickson, Lois Lanning and Rachel French (2017).

Written by

Rachel French, MA Ed. is an experienced international educator, having worked in schools in South America, Africa, Europe and Oceania. She is a certified Independent Consultant, Presenter, and Trainer with Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning. She is the Director of Professional Learning International (PLI) founded to support international schools to access leading professional development. Through PLI Rachel French is now the sole provider of the annual ‘Dr. H Lynn Erickson and Dr. Lois A. Lanning Certification Institute for Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction Trainers and Presenters.’  She has presented numerous workshops in Europe and Asia including workshops with Dr. Erickson. She has presented on Concept-based Learning at the AEM International Baccalaureate Conferences and the AGIS conference (Association of German International Schools). Rachel works as a consultant supporting schools to plan and implement Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction. She also coaches and provides feedback to teams of teachers on curriculum development. Rachel is currently employed as PYP Coordinator at Frankfurt International School, and is an IB trained PYP workshop leader. She is experienced in aligning Concept-Based Curriculum material and the IB programmes. Rachel and her husband have two young children whom they cherish and continue to learn from each and everyday.

Latest comments

  • Wonderful clear example of how a unit web can be utilized to develop additional concepts and generalizations students can attain during a unit! The web is a great tool for teachers to flush out their own thinking and to see the possibilities of the unit.

  • Excellent explanation of the need for multiple generalizations in a unit of study! The idea of parallel units effectively addresses the problem of needing stand alone lessons to supplement units. This approach helps keep these lessons conceptually deep and makes all of the learning more coherent. Thanks, Rachel.

    • Thanks Laurie, multiple generalizations and parallel units definitely increases disciplinary rigor in the curriculum.

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