Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions, pp. 8 of 9

Unit questions are more specific.  Such questions should relate to one or more of your overarching questions.  Unit questions are intended to provoke students to explore one aspect of the broader question.  At the unit level, you would develop a few, perhaps three to five overarching questions that would begin to direct learners in the direction of your major generalizations.  Good over-arching questions provide coherence and direction for the unit activities.  Thus they focus your instruction and student learning.  You would use the generalizations you developed as you organize the unit around big ideas and re-phrase those as questions that are worded appropriately for your learners and will make clear to them the direction for learning and thinking during this unit.  For example, an understanding goal for a unit might be that the interactions between human beings and their environments shape the way people live.  Your unit question might ask how geography has shaped life in Singapore.  At the same time, it is important that questions be phrased in kid-friendly terms.  It helps, then, to think of “entry questions.” For example, rather than asking young learners directly about how geography affects Singapore, your entry question might be “Where is Singapore?”  From an exploration of Singapore’s location on the map, the class might explore geographic elements such as climate, location and size. From there, you might go on to explore how the climate, location and size of Singapore have influenced our way of life such as our attire, housing, transportation system, etc.

Building your curriculum and your teaching around questions is intended to provoke thought, and not to overwhelm children.  Students should not be expected to simply come up with answers and then move on to something else.  In fact, good driving questions, you will remember, cannot and should not be easy to answer or asked only once.  Rather, questions become the “driver” for the activities you plan to engage your learners.  With understanding goals (important generalizations) clearly in mind, the challenge is to develop the activities designed to help learners develop understanding.  Your questions should be scaffolded in the same way.  Thus you might present students with an entry question to “hook” them: “Where is Singapore?”  After engaging in an introductory activity, you might pose the important unit question: How does geography influence our way of life in Singapore?  With this question, you can develop a variety of activities designed to get your learners to explore the various ways in which geography impacts life in Singapore.  A culminating activity would allow learners to draw together everything they have explored in a unit on geography and its impact on life in Singapore.  At this point, you could refer back to one of the over-arching questions for the course: What does it mean to be Singaporean? In this way, good driving questions enable your children to learn facts in a meaningful way and their explorations through these questions will enable their understanding of Singapore and what it means to be Singaporeans will be deepened.


When planning for instruction, it is as important to plan what to teach and how to teach. In this paper, we have highlighted the importance of designing curriculum around big ideas – key concepts and generalizations. These are the building blocks of deep understanding. Crafting instruction around big ideas eschews the pitfalls of focusing on trivial and unrelated facts and figures. Instead of the teacher “covering” the syllabus, children are encouraged to “uncover” concepts and generalizations through the use of driving questions. In this way, meaningful learning and deeper understanding of pertinent issues will be achieved.

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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