Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions, pp. 3 of 9

Concepts and Generalizations

Another way to think about learning is to think in terms of understanding.  If we do not understand something we probably have not truly learned it; that is, we have not connected it to existing schema or prior knowledge.  We may be able to retain new information for an examination.  But that does not mean we really understand it.  Wiggins and McTighe (2005) highlighted the difference between knowledge and understanding. “Knowing” is to possess the facts but “understanding” requires the ability to use, apply or transfer that knowledge. Ask yourself how you know when you really understand something.  We generally know we understand something when we can explain it, use it and apply it to new situations.  So if as teachers we want learners to develop understanding we need to think beyond simply providing a lot of new information. We need to think about how learners develop the schemata or mental frameworks that enable understanding.  As a teacher, you need to think past simply covering the syllabus or the textbook, to making sure you organize the curriculum in ways that help children uncover the ideas in the new information in order to understand and learn. 

The goal in social studies, as in any subject, is not simply to amass a lot of information.  Rather, we want to enable learners to understand the world they live in and the groups within which they interact.  We want learners to be able to use knowledge to make decisions as participants in the social world.  An excellent way to help learners move from simply memorizing information to developing real understanding is to focus on concepts and generalizations or big ideas rather than only on information.  Organizing the curriculum around concepts and generalizations can help learners develop meaningful understanding.


The term concept refers to a mental construct or organizing idea for specific information and experience. It is the means by which people organize information in their minds and is an essential aspect of the mind’s operating programme (Van Cleaf, 1991, p 214).  Every time you encounter a new chair, for example, you do not wonder what it is; you already have the concept of “chair” in your mind.  Recent immigrants from traditional societies where people sit on the floor or a raised platform might be puzzled the first time they encounter a chair.  They have not yet developed the concept; they do not yet have the mental schema to accommodate an understanding of this new idea.  They have not yet developed the concept of a chair.  Concepts are generally expressed by one or two words.  They may be concrete, like the concept of a chair, or abstract, like the concept of democracy.  Conceptual understanding is crucial to developing the schemata that facilitate learning.  Like the recent immigrant who has never seen a chair, young learners encounter many new concepts as they grow and learn.  Developing accurate understandings of these concepts is an important part of learning.

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

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