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    How Essential Understandings Fit Into Our Learning

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    How Essential Understandings Fit Into Our Learning

    What does being educated mean? 

    How do we attain wisdom, knowledge, and awareness? 

    More importantly, how do educators accomplish this with their learners while simultaneously guiding them in adopting lifelong learning mindsets and fostering learner autonomy?

    Ultimately, the answer to this question lies within essential understandings.

    The term "understanding" means to perceive the meaning, significance, explanation, or cause of something. But what is the nature of something we might consider essential to understand?

    Perhaps we can whittle it down to the notion that what is essential goes beyond mere topics and facts. We are talking more about knowledge that shapes us as global citizens who are responsible, ethical, and able to think independently and critically about practically anything.

    Both formal and informal learning is "essential to the development of considerate, compassionate, and cooperative societies, the success of organisations, and the personal pursuit of happiness" (Malec, 2022). Essential understandings are a fundamental component of both these types of learning.

    Let's explore essential understandings, why they matter, where to find them, and how to use them.

    What Are Essential Understandings?

    Essential understandings are one of the primary intentions behind both the learning and the curriculum. They ask us to consider what curricular elements we want to bring forward and how those would shape our learners. Instead of being dispensable, essential understandings represent knowledge we will ponder, explore, and utilise throughout a lifetime.

    When we talk about the fundamental concepts that help learners to shape their identities, personalities, ethics, belief systems, and moral compasses, we are talking about essential understandings. They enable learners to determine who they will become by reflecting on their opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about the world and themselves.

    An Example of Essential Understanding

    Essential understandings encourage learners to think about the following:

    • What is relevant to them
    • What they believe
    • What they agree and disagree with

    Here is an example using a standard from the Australian Curriculum:

    "Describe and explain the significance of people, groups, places, and events to the development of Australia."

    From this, we can draw essential understandings such as these:

    1. We often record historical accounts from only one perspective.
    2. The real story of Australia includes many views and is still evolving.
    3. Australia's history dates back over 50,000 years and is recorded in many different ways.

    Embracing these essential understandings means having more than a simple knowledge of facts. In the case of this example, it means knowing that history is recorded from multiple perspectives and continues to change as time goes on; that history is a work in progress. 

    The fact that these perspectives often differ in many ways is another consideration. Any foray into Australia's past might require analysing various sources and locating patterns in knowledge to assemble a viewpoint or answer. Finally, it indicates that the richness of a country's history is crucial in understanding its culture and recognising its place in the world.

    Essential understandings represent knowledge we will ponder, explore, and utilise throughout a lifetime.

    This is what essential understandings do—they go beyond facts and information to help us build critical thinking skills, establish guiding beliefs and viewpoints, align our moral compasses, and foster agency over our learning.

    What Do Essential Understandings Teach Our Learners?

    We mentioned earlier that essential understandings help us build and hone critical thinking, shape our belief systems, and adopt ethical guidelines for operating in society, among other things. This is why essential understandings deserve top priority in our teaching. So how do essential understandings assist us with enhancing the skills mentioned above?

    Let's begin with critical thinking, a facet of which is the willingness, when facing new understanding, to deconstruct your thinking to improve it (Elder & Paul, 2020). When we focus on essential understandings, our instruction shifts automatically to include higher skills in Bloom's Taxonomy—the higher-order skills of evaluation, analysis, and knowledge creation (Crockett, 2019). This shift happens because of the nature of essential understandings, which exist beyond content recall and memorisation.

    Essential understandings enable learners to determine who they will become by reflecting on their opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about the world and themselves.

    What we believe or have opinions about are also formed by essential understandings since they are more about broader truths and bigger ideas than simple "facts". Such concepts are presented as more in-depth, challenging, and pedagogically enriching than topic headings (Mitchell et al., 2017).

    And what about ethical considerations? The term "ethics" encompasses a range of definitions that depend on one's perception. For example, one study suggests:

    "... for some, it means instructing people not to break the law ... for others, it means an attempt to improve moral character ... or still others, it primarily means imparting special skills in the handling of moral argumentation." (Callahan, 1980). 

    That said, depending on their substance, essential understandings can challenge a learner to ponder any such implications.

    Ultimately, we can take from this that essential understandings are meant to expand our thinking. They engage us in considerations extending beyond topics and skills, as we stated earlier.

    Essential understandings are essential because they exercise our thinking and learning in the best way—by encouraging us to critically consider and explore the deeper hows, whats, and whys of knowledge. They are the "enduring" understandings spoken of by Wiggins and McTighe in their landmark book Understanding by Design (1998), where they state:

    "Enduring refers to the big ideas, the important understandings, that we want students to 'get inside of' and retain after they've forgotten many of the details ... enduring understandings go beyond discrete facts or skills to focus on larger concepts, principles, or processes." (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p. 10).

    Deriving essential understandings from our curriculum to lead instruction is well worth our time as educators because it makes the learning stick better. But, as one study suggests, "the idea is that most people don't remember a litany of facts. However, if you tie them to concepts, so there is a home base and an opportunity to make connections, then people are much more likely to retain these facts" (Glass, 2012).

    Where to Find Essential Understandings

    Remember that essential understandings exist apart from standards, content descriptors, and the like. They are the core meanings and intentions of what we want learners to grasp, not necessarily the specifics of what we want them to do or know after a lesson or task.

    Many curriculums contain examples of essential understandings that are pretty accessible for busy teachers. In the case of the Australian Curriculum, the three most effective locations for sourcing your essential understandings from are:

    • Learning Area Rationales
    • Year Level Descriptors
    • The General Capabilities 

    What About Other Curriculums? 

    In the Victorian Curriculum, the most likely place to uncover essential understandings would be in the Rationale & Aims section for each subject. Another pertinent example would be the Common Core State Standards, in which one can draw essential understandings from the CCSS profile for College and Career Readiness.

    While not an exhaustive list, the point to take away is that essential understandings are generally the same across most curriculums.

    How To Use Essential Understandings in Teaching

    It's impossible to discuss essential understandings without also talking about learning intentions, of which essential understandings are a component. We incorporate essential understandings into our teaching by clarifying learning intentions and success criteria with learners before our teaching begins.

    Learning intentions are made up of three elements:


    learning intentions elements

    Learning intentions are not lesson objectives, which are the actual tasks learners will perform. Instead, learning intentions are defined by the above three elements. Learning intentions are about learning, whereas lesson objectives are about doing.

    No learning can commence unless we have a point of origin. Our learners must know beforehand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will measure their success (Crockett, 2022). This is precisely what learning intentions provide—the what, why, and how of learning which we must unpack and clarify with learners before instruction begins.

    Unpacking Learning Intentions

    To understand how to do this properly, we'll use the Australian Curriculum standard we examined earlier as our learning intention:

    "Describe and explain the significance of people, groups, places, and events to the development of Australia."

    There is a highly effective formula we can use to unravel our learning intention. We identify the objects and verbs in the intention (creating an impromptu literacy lesson) and then form two types of exploratory questions around them: unpacking and purposeful questions. When we're doing this, we suggest something simple like underlining the verbs and circling the objects.

    Australian Standard

    In the above example, the verbs are:

    • Describe
    • Explain

    The objects in the same example are:

    • The significance of people, groups, places, and events
    • Development of Australia

    Now here are a few examples of unpacking and purposeful questions we could potentially ask:

    Unpacking Questions

    • What is it we will be describing? 
    • What will we be explaining? 
    • What do you think the development of Australia means?
    • Are some events, people, groups, places, and events more significant than others to the development of Australia? Why?

    Purposeful Questions

    • If there were one thing you would want people to understand about Australia, what would it be?
    • How have key figures, events, and values shaped Australian society, its system of government, and citizenship?
    • How has Australia developed as a society with global connections, and what is my role as a global citizen?
    • Is Australia still growing?

    Finally, let's review the three essential understandings we derived initially from this learning intention:

    1. We often record historical accounts from only one perspective.
    2. The real story of Australia includes many views and is still evolving.
    3. Australia's history dates back over 50,000 years and is recorded in many different ways.

    Can you perceive the connections between the essential understandings and the myriad of responses our learners could provide for the questions? Throughout this whole process, the essential understandings behind the learning come into focus almost on their own through the effective use of the unpacking process.

    Where to Next?

    Discussion and discourse are essential to learning, especially in an educational environment where essential understandings take center stage. What do your learners agree on and what are they willing to challenge each other about? What ideas and concepts will make them change their views about something? What ideas suggest to them the potential for an exploration that is potentially both mind and life-altering?

    These are essential understandings, why they matter, and how we can begin using them with learners. What steps will you take to start using essential understandings?


    Callahan, D. (1980). Goals in the teaching of ethics. Ethics teaching in higher education, 61-80.

    Crockett, L. (2019). Future focused learning: 10 essential shifts of everyday practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

    Crockett, L. (2022). Agents to Agency: A measurable process for cultivating self-directed learner agency. Victoria, AU: Hawker Brownlow.

    Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2020). Critical thinking: Learn the tools the best thinkers use. Foundation for Critical Thinking.

    Glass, K. (2012). Mapping Comprehensive Units to the ELA Common Core Standards, K–5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

    Malec, M. (2022). Why is Learning Important? A Deep Dive Into the Benefits of Being a Lifelong Learner. Retrieved from https://www.learnerbly.com/articles/why-is-learning-important, Jan. 19, 2023.

    Mitchell, I., Keast, S., Panizzon, D., & Mitchell, J. (2017). Using ‘big ideas’ to enhance teaching and student learning. Teachers and teaching, 23(5), 596-610.

    Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.

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