Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions


Social studies lessons have often been criticized as being boring, just learning a list of factual details or doing meaningless activities that may be fun but do not lead to real understanding. As curricular-instructional gatekeepers (Thornton, 2005), how do we select content and teach it in a meaningful way? This paper discusses how we may enhance student understanding through planning instruction around big ideas such as key concepts and generalizations.  A conversational style of writing is deliberately used together with prompts to think and examples of how the lesson may look like, to make this paper more interactive and engaging for the reader.


Ms Lee began the school year by meeting with the other Primary 4 teachers to review the curriculum.  For each subject they discussed the “big ideas” they hoped their students would come to understand. Ms Lee likes to think about what she hopes her students will remember in the future, after they have forgotten many details. Ms Lee believes that when you have really learned something, it stays with you for life.  She also believes that her students show they understand what they have learned when they are able to explain and apply it, rather than simply get correct answers on a test.  Ms Lee and her colleagues identify a few deep understandings for each subject they teach and then they link each unit to one or more of those understandings.  They have learned through experience that if they keep the big picture in mind as they teach, the students are more likely to make connections and develop deep understandings.

Stop and think for a moment about why you want to be a teacher.  You probably did not think, “Boy, I really want to make sure children do well in examinations,” or “I really want to help students memorize a lot of information.”  While doing well in examinations is important and memorizing information has its place, you probably had other things in mind.  Most people decide to be teachers because they like young people and they like learning.  Teachers want to help young people grow, develop and learn.  In this paper, we will help you think about what it means to learn and what the implications of that are for your thinking about what to teach.


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!