Key Understandings

Ideas that Transfer Across Time and Place

Key understandings are broad ideas that transfer across time and place.These overarching concepts drive the work of a discipline and form the basis for inquiry learning. The interplay of this conceptual way of thinking with factual knowledge fosters deeper understanding. The concepts form the core of authentic, real work, the type of work those working in the disciplines undertake to create knowledge.

Key understandings are developed from Alberta Education's programs of study. The front section of the program of study provides teachers with an understanding of the philosophy, structure, and core concepts of subject discipline. The overview of each topic area and the general outcomes provide the foundation for developing key understandings that drive the inquiry study.

Key Understandings

Key understandings involve the big ideas that give meaning and importance to facts.

They are made up of the concepts, principles, and theories that weave facts into revealing and useful patterns. They involve the few organizing ideas that enable us to make sense of past lessons, to conduct current inquiry, and to create new knowledge.

Key understandings transfer to other topics, fields, and adult life.

Such understandings endure by enabling us to make vital connections in our learning, as students and as adults. For example, the idea that might does not make rights applies to both playground disputes and international diplomacy.

Key understandings are usually not obvious, are often counter-intuitive, and easily misunderstood.

An understanding is an inference, not a fact. It is an insight derived from inquiry. Key understandings in intellectual fields (e.g. in physics: objects remain in motion at a constant velocity if no force acts on them.) often violate common sense and conventional wisdom. They are prone to misunderstanding by students. They cannot, therefore, be covered. They must be uncovered.

Key understandings may provide a conceptual foundation for basic skills.

Although skill-based teaching in most units of mathematics, foreign language, and physical education would seem to deal with skills rather than understandings, skills derive their value from the principles that help us know when and how to use them. The understandings also justify the use of a skill (e.g. the student who can explain why you should use a bent-arm pull in swimming freestyle), and enable the student to extend the use of the skill to new situations (e.g. the use of bent-arm pull in backstroke).

Key understandings are deliberately framed as generalizations or the moral of the story.

An understanding is the specific insight that should be inferred from study of the topic (not just the stating of the topic). It is what we want the student to realize during the learning experience. The realization might be that there is no single agreed-upon understanding, or that people disagree about how the issues/facts/text should be understood.

Guiding Questions

  • What big idea or moral of the story will learners understand and remember in five years?
  • What is the purpose or value of this understanding?
  • What are key nouns and verbs used in the program of study that point to key understandings?
  • What is the real world value of studying ________________ that transfers to students' lives?

Sample Key Understandings

Access a listing of sample key understandings.

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