What is worth understanding?

By Kristine Tesoriero

Middle School Curriculum & Professional Learning Coordinator


In an age when most of our questions can be answered with just the click of a button, what is the difference between “knowing a lot” and truly having a deep understanding? As educators, how do we teach and assess for understanding?

As we continue to unpack our standards (Common Core, NGSS, C3, Ontario PE and Health, etc.) it is worthwhile to grapple with these questions amongst colleagues.  By starting with the end in mind, we consider the knowledge, skills, understandings, and long term transfer goals that we believe are worth understanding as we target these standards.  It is easy to get “lost in the weeds” of trying to cover a lot of content.  By questioning what is truly worth understanding, educators have the opportunity to design curriculum that will lead to a deep understanding of content as well as the ability to transfer knowledge and skills.

Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design, says that understanding cannot be transmitted, like factual information.  Teaching for understanding involves setting the stage for students to actively construct their own meaning around big ideas and essential questions that we believe are important for them to explore throughout a unit of study.  Students make meaning by exploring these thought-provoking questions, and then analyzing, interpreting and synthesizing information around the topic.  If deep understanding is the final destination, then Essential Questions are the gateway.

McTighe offers some helpful tips on the construction of Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings.  He says, that…

EQs are:

  • Open-ended
  • Thought-provoking
  • Cannot be “Googled”
  • Written in student friendly language
  • Should be posted in the room for students to engage with throughout the unit

EUs are:

  • Phrased as “Students will understand that…”
  • “Earned”- meaning that students should come to these understandings by the end of the unit on their own.
  • May involve several concepts from the unit

Challenge yourself to come up with rich EUs by asking “So what?”

For example: EU=“Students will understand that things are always changing.” So what? A stronger EU=“Students will understand that recognizing patterns of change allow us to predict and prepare for the future.”

EQs and EUs should be:

  • Linked and aligned so that the EQs lead to overarching understandings (EUs)
  • Only listed if you plan to teach AND assess them

The next natural question then is, “How do you know when someone really understands?” Well, if we are teaching for understanding, then we must also be assessing for understanding.  Jay McTighe suggests that once you have determined the learning goals you can start to think about your assessment plan as a photo album.  He says that since we have different goal types (understandings, knowledge, skills) we should have different pictures in our album.  Which snapshots will provide the best evidence that a student has a deep understanding of a concept? What can a student “do” to demonstrate the skills you identified as essential? Assessing for knowledge looks different from assessing for skills.  Does your photo album reflect that difference? Good assessment is more than a single photograph.  It is a collection of photographs over time.

So what does assessing for understanding look like? In an article called, “Did they learn it?” McTighe says,

“…if you really understand, you can apply your knowledge and skills appropriately to a new situation or a novel context…This suggests, therefore, that from an assessment point of view we would be looking to assess understanding, not in terms of a recall or recognition test, but to set up novel conditions, new contexts, and ask students to apply knowledge and skills appropriately,”

We know that in order to prepare our students for the rapidly changing and unpredictable world in which we live, we must re-think how we teach and assess.  If we want our children to be critical thinkers we must go beyond the teaching and assessment of factual knowledge.

What questions can you ask your students that will uncover deep understandings? What kinds of tasks will allow your students to transfer their knowledge and skills? What do you believe is worth understanding?

For more information and research on this topic you may find the following resources interesting:

Jay McTighe’s website has a lot of great (and free!) resources:


A summary of research on Transfer

Research on Deeper Learning as Transfer

Research on Deeper Learning

Linda Darling-Hammond makes the case for expanded use of performance assessments.

Testing to, and Beyond, the Common Core 

A classic article by Grant Wiggins. Written in 1989, it is perhaps even more timely today.

The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance

 Helping teachers understand Understanding


Using Essential Questions to uncover content and spark thinking



Young brains in motion at Grade 5 Science Fair. Kids did a great job explaining their projects. (Photo by Tom Fearon)
Grade 5 students demonstrating their understanding at the G5 Science (Photo by Tom Fearon)
MS students in "The Seussification of Romeo & Juliet" master the art of mask performance. (Photo by Tom Fearon)
MS students in “The Seussification of Romeo & Juliet” master the art of mask performance. (Photo by Tom Fearon)
Jay McTighe explains the difference between "knowing" and "understanding" at a recent workshop he delivered for international schools.
Jay McTighe explains the difference between “knowing” and “understanding” at a recent workshop he delivered for international schools.

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