Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions, pp. 6 of 9


The term generalization refers to verifiable statements about the relationship of two or more concepts.  Like concepts, generalizations are also big ideas and they can be simple or complex.  Strong generalizations are statements that get to the heart of a subject being taught.  That is, strong generalizations are generally timeless and applicable across various situations.  For example, a factual statement, or low level generalization might be: One reason people migrate to Singapore is to find work.  A strong generalization, verifiable across time and place, might be: The movement of people is influenced by the need or desire for better living standards.  The first statement tells us about why people might migrate to Singapore today.  The second statement tells us about why people are likely to migrate generally.  It is an understanding that can be tested in other times and other places.  Notice how the concept of living standards is linked to the concept of movement (migration) of people.  Generalizations are the next higher level in the building blocks of understanding. See Figure 3 on the relationships between generalization, concepts and facts.

Designing Curriculum Around Generalizations

We began this paper with the argument that it is important to help children learn “big ideas” rather than simply amass a lot of information.  That is not to say that facts and information are not important; rather, facts make sense only when they are organised and connected.  In planning for meaningful learning, it is important to begin by asking yourself: “What are the big ideas I want the children to take away?”  Rather than focusing on what facts are to be covered, it is important to focus on what understandings are to be developed.  What is essential, what lies at the heart of this unit of study?  What are the core concepts of the unit and how do they relate to one another?  A useful early step in planning a unit of study is to develop a few, perhaps three or four major understandings you hope your learners will develop as a result of the learning activities of the unit (see Figure 4).

Once you have determined the major understandings to develop, you can begin to plan activities that will enable learners to develop those understandings.  You will be planning ways to enable the learners to develop the understandings of the unit.  It is important to note that the generalizations are not simply statements to be given to the learners for them to remember.  Rather, they are statements which guide your thinking about planning for teaching.  Having determined what the broad generalizations are which will drive the unit, you now want to think about structuring your unit so that the children are first “hooked in” and then have opportunities to engage with materials which will help them develop understanding.  Finally, how will the learners be expected to pull together what they have learned and to demonstrate their understanding?  There is no one best way to help learners develop the generalizations which will guide your teaching. On the other hand, children, like adults, develop real understanding when they actively engage with the materials being learned.

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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