Enduring Understandings: Seeing the Forest through the Trees

By Megan Davenport, Rubicon International

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When I sit down to write curriculum, I usually start by looking at the standards to determine how to organize and address them all in a year.

It is a big task, and something that takes a lot of careful thought. The end result is a pacing guide that really shows me what needs to be taught and when.  At this point, I always feel really excited that I have taken on this difficult task and succeeded. I now know what I will be teaching and when.

But then I review my list and it hits me: I have so much to cover- how do I see the forest through the trees?  How do I capture the big picture of a unit without getting stuck on each individual standard? How do I create a rich context for the standards that will help my students truly retain and develop a lasting understanding of what I’m teaching?

Once I grab a cup of tea and reflect upon my newly-grouped standards, I am ready to write the Enduring Understandings by examining the overarching purpose for the unit.

Questions to consider:

Why have I chosen to put these particular standards together?

What is the common thread?

What do I really want my students to remember at the end of this unit?

Why should this information matter for my students today?

Why should this information matter for my students ten years from now?

For a teacher that has activities and materials to prep, quizzes to grade, and more, this can be hard. Really, this is hard even for teachers devoting entire professional development days to thinking about curriculum only. But taking the time to flush out the purpose, focus, and value of the unit can make the rest of the planning more targeted and instruction far more effective.  After coming up with content, skills, activities, assessments, etc., the teacher has an anchor to check everything against- does this activity really support the purpose of this unit? Is it necessary?

If the answer is yes, then you are well on your way! Keep going and check out our Enduring Understanding examples and resources below:

  • Overarching- should include major ideas or concepts
  • Recurring- the ideas should be broad and important enough to be addressed multiple times throughout the year, and across multiple years
  • Valuable- should provide value beyond the K-12 education

Social Studies:

  • Whenever major historical events happen, such as wars, there is never a single, easily explained cause, but rather a complex series of causes.
  • When we research, we need to be aware of who wrote the information and the potential bias of each source.

Math

  • Numbers can be much smaller than the number “1”, so we must use fractions and decimals to be more precise.
  • Graphs help us represent numerical information in a visual way.

ELA

  • Literature can transcend place and time to be relevant for readers decades after the work is written.
  • The intended audience and author’s purpose for writing should impact the tone and writing style of the author.

Science

  • Models of the earth, sun, and moon can be used to represent, describe, and predict events on earth.
  • Living things are made up of parts so small that they are not visible to the human eye.

The Arts

  • We must respect other artists and try to understand their intentions when reviewing, evaluating, and appreciating art.
  • The arts reflect the cultural trends and historical events of a given place and time.

World Languages

  • We must appreciate cultural differences when learning a new language.
  • Patterns exist in every language, though we must also know the exceptions to these patterns.

How can Enduring Understandings be used by a teacher? By students?

Teachers should use the Enduring Understandings to define the purpose and focus for a unit. When writing the rest of the unit, teachers should be consistently revisiting the EUs to check for intra-unit alignment and focus.

Students might also look at the Enduring Understandings at the beginning of and throughout a unit to focus their learning. When a unit is over, a teacher may ask the students to outline the key information that was taken from the unit. Hopefully the answers reflect the EUs.

Tip #1: Read through the standards you have chosen for your unit to get them fresh in your mind. Next, close or look away from the standards and ask yourself “Why I am teaching this unit? What do students really need to get out of it?”. What you come up with are likely your EUs.

Tip#2: Try jotting down your EU ideas on a piece of scratch paper before looking at the full unit planner.

Tip #3: Don’t stress about the wording. When we look at sample EUs, the wording often looks beautiful and poetic. It is the ideas that matter most, so get them down and revise later if needed/wanted.

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