Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions

Lead Students in Designing Their Enduring Understandings

By Marie-Theres Whitehead, Teacher at International School Ho Chi Minh City

Likely everyone involved in curriculum development has not only heard but also battled at one point with crafting high-level Enduring Understandings. Even though we all know how to fill the boxes of ‘students will know’ and ‘students will be able to’ in our unit plans, we often take very long to produce a fitting Enduring Understanding. Let’s take a look at strategies to make this easier for teachers, but also get students involved in this process.

What Are Enduring Understandings?

Enduring Understandings are also known as Generalizations (in Lynn Erickson’s Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction) or big ideas. And that is exactly what they are. Depending on who we follow, we can have between one and eight Generalizations per unit. Tania Lattanzio for example would go for one overarching Enduring Understandings, Lynn Erickson aims for 5-8 per unit.

Review the basics of writing Enduring Understandings and incorporating them into curriculum.

When writing our Enduring Understandings, we put two or more concepts studied throughout the unit in a relationship by using strong verbs. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

In order to craft strong Enduring Understandings, we have to clarify first what concepts we are actually going to teach throughout the unit and then think of the relationship between these concepts. Using strong verbs will help us get a strong Enduring Understanding. Verbs such as ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ are weak; they are not offering any action.

Scaffolding our Enduring Understanding will ensure us that we made it as strong as possible. The easiest way is to take the Enduring Understanding and ask the question “Why?” or “How?”. Rephrasing the EU to answer this question will make the EU stronger. If we want to generalize Enduring Understandings further, we can then ask the question “So What?”. This is usually used when certain students have clearly mastered the content and need to elevate their understanding further. Our goal in crafting Enduring Understandings should be level 2, the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ level.

After some practice, this becomes a well-known task; the question I then asked myself was how we can lead the students to craft their own Generalizations to show their understanding of the content. And this brought me to look closer at Essential Questions.

What Are Essential Questions?

Essential Questions are attached to the Enduring Understandings and should lead students to them. There are three types of Essential Questions:

  • Factual – asking for facts that can be researched and have a right or wrong answer mostly;
  • Conceptual – asking for connections and relationships, leading students to a higher level of understanding;
  • Debatable – questions that do not have a right or wrong answer but lead students to offer various view points.

A combination of these questions helps students to get to the Enduring Understanding(s).

Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning say that each Enduring Understanding should have multiple questions from each type attached to them.

Learn how to write essential questions to inspire lifelong learning.

What Is Inductive Teaching?

With the discussion of more and more personalized and student-centered learning, the question of how to get students involved in forming their own Enduring Understandings and showing their learning in this way becomes obvious.

Of course there is no ‘one fits all’ answer to this question. Every subject is different and teachers have to bring their knowledge of the curriculum to the table to find clear concepts of the content taught and the connections to be made.

In my classroom, moving from a deductive to inductive teaching style has helped me bring students to verbalize their understandings themselves. In inductive teaching, students receive all the material beforehand and reach an understanding through following questions and tasks using the material. The teacher moves from a teaching role to a facilitator. In our collaborative team, we crafted our Enduring Understandings first and possible Essential Questions to make sure we were clear on the direction and the conceptual lens to use.

In the classroom, we gave students the necessary resources to reach the Enduring Understanding and helped them with Essential Questions along the way. The fact that students always had the necessary resources accessible, so the teacher could focus on each group and help, empowered the students greatly.

When we arrived at the time of crafting their own Enduring Understandings, we gave them the sentence starter “We understand that …”. Although the first draft might not have been perfect, after asking clarifying questions throughout the process that students had a clear understanding of the content and made all necessary connections.

The biggest surprise to me however was, when at the end of the year, they were still able to repeat understandings from the beginning of the year. What more do we need to know that something works?

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Contributing Author:

Marie-Theres Whitehead has been teaching World Languages for 15 years in various countries and school systems. She has two Master degrees and a Doctorate, all of them focused around French, Spanish, and Education. Her passion for languages, as well as travel, have led her into exploring how to actually teach them to students.

World Languages Education is usually a big question mark in many schools; therefore, Marie has sought to learn more about conceptual curriculum and instruction in the independent consulting course by Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning. She tried many strategies in her classroom and found them to be powerful tools for student learning and understanding. She recently has moved from South Africa to Vietnam.

Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions

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