January 12th, 2015

Using Fundamental Concepts and Essential Questions to Promote Critical Thinking


class discussion

Could your students identify the most important concepts in your discipline? Do they leave your class understanding these most fundamental concepts, including the ability to reason using these concepts to answer essential questions? Do your students become critical thinkers who connect concepts and practices in your course with other courses? With their future professional lives?

Traditional ways of teaching and the customary use of textbooks can hinder the development of critical thinking and meaningful learning. Instructors often resort to lecture because of its efficiency in covering content. However, student attention often wanes quickly, and students end up memorizing notes they wrote down during the lecture and developing only a superficial understanding of course material. Also problematic is that textbooks highlight more concepts than students can possibly learn in a meaningful way. Many textbooks have as many as 45 concepts, or more, per chapter. In a text with, for example, 15 chapters, that is approximately 700 concepts. Often students have absolutely no idea which of the 700 concepts is more important than any other. As a result, they try to memorize as many as possible and leave the course with little deep understanding of any. Students can, however, develop the skills they need to find connections among concepts, assess their relative importance in the discipline, and then use them to think critically about a wide variety of concepts, principles, ideas, and questions. You can facilitate this process by structuring your course around the fundamental and powerful concepts, and essential questions of the discipline.

Fundamental concepts

Nosich (2005) defines a fundamental concept as one that grounds the other concepts. Other concepts in the course can be understood through the fundamental concept and for that reason Nosich describes fundamental and powerful concepts as ones that can be used to think about and reason through a large number of questions, problems, and information. Fundamental and powerful concepts need to be learned in a deep way; they should be present throughout the course. They can be contrasted with individual facts and less general concepts. As new concepts are learned they should be contextualized within and connected to the fundamental and powerful concepts. For example, in educational psychology, a fundamental and powerful concept is learning. Students can consider learning from multiple theoretical perspectives throughout the course. For example, how does learning happen from a cognitive view of learning? What do behavioral views add? In ethics, fairness is a fundamental and powerful concept. In an ethics course students can relate different approaches to moral and ethical decision making to the concept of fairness. Keeping fundamental and powerful concepts central to instruction helps students see the big picture of the course (the forest) and not get lost in the individual bits of information and less important concepts (the trees).

Essential questions

Another way to facilitate critical thinking and meaningful learning is to help your students use fundamental and powerful concepts to reason through essential questions of a course. An essential question of a course is a question that the course is trying to answer. How does literature enrich life? How are moral arguments justified? Essential questions help students identify the relevance of studying a particular discipline. Wiggins and McTighe (2011) define essential questions as those that:

  • Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas of the core content.
  • Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions.
  • Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers.
  • Stimulate vital ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons.
  • Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences.
  • Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations, refer to “core ideas and inquiries within a discipline” and help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas and knowledge.” (p. 73)

In educational psychology, two essential questions are how do students learn and how can I teach to support student learning? Assignments based on these questions could include analyzing lesson plans from different theoretical perspectives to determine if the lesson plan will facilitate learning, and analyzing case studies of classroom situations from multiple learning perspectives to solve problems. In ethics an essential question can be how are moral claims justified? Assignments based on this essential question could include comparing how much weight is to be given to statistics, narrative, tradition, or logical reasoning in justifying a moral claim and then comparing that across several moral issues. We could ask our students to think through why statistics or narrative matter more in one case and not another. They would leave the class with the skills required to assess the different elements of a moral argument and the ability to explain how those elements can be used to justify a moral position.

If students memorize concepts but cannot think critically using those concepts, then the concepts are meaningless to the student and will soon be forgotten. Additionally, if students cannot determine which concepts within a course are fundamental and powerful as opposed to less important, their efforts to learn are undermined by a lack of focus. Students can leave your course with a strong grasp of course content, and the ability to think critically within the discipline if you 1) explicitly identify and teach them to understand deeply the fundamental and powerful concepts of the course, and 2) create tasks and assignments that require them to reason about essential questions of the discipline using those concepts like professionals in the field.

Nosich, G. M. (2009). Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum (3rd Ed). Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Wiggins, G & McTighe, J. (2011). Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High Quality Units. ASCD, Alexandria, VA.

Julie Schrock is an associate professor of education at Meredith College. Steven Benko is an assistant professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College.

  • Sher Pensiero

    Right on, Jules! An excellent article that gives meaningful perspective on how students retain and process information. Will forward this to Tara as she begins her new course on evaluating educators for her principal's certification. Thank you for sharing!

  • elizabeth Kelly

    Thanks for the suggestions to relate core learning objective concepts into relevant class learning. I will apply the suggestions during my next online course.

  • Perry Shaw

    Thank you, Julie. The notion of fundamental concepts is truly crucial for meaningful learning.
    In terms of shape I find it helpful to construct concepts in the form of brief declarative sentences – along the model of the proverbs we know so well. For example, "Education is about learning not teaching", "Less is more", "Holistic learning involves affective, behavioural, and cognitive dimensions (the "ABCs" of learning)". If all else is lost, but the sentence remains, then something of substance has nonetheless been learned.

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  • Unaisi Nabobo-Baba

    Excellent Julie and Steven

    I like to=he idea of Fundamental concepts and essential questions- big deal-have been teaching in the Pacific islands for almost 30years both at high school (6) and university (24 years)-these are essential yes- I also use the storyline idea-where I tell the full story of the lesson then begin the lesson or unit -this way students (ESL) see the meaning of the parts as they know the whole (the storied whole) Dr Unaisi Nabobo-Baba University of Guam