This blog is an excerpt from the manuscript of our forthcoming book, Learning that Transfers, publishing March 2021

“Why do we have to know this?” It’s the age-old question students pose when they doubt the importance of the content they’re asked to learn. It’s hard to blame them. Most adults have little use for the quadratic formula or periodic table, not to mention the Battle of Waterloo or Moby Dick. When it boils down to it, any one atom of our content – any single text or algorithm, any piece of information or skill – is not all that essential to the daily demands of life, or even to tackling the greatest challenges facing humankind.

Despite the relative insignificance of any one part of these disciplines, we have designed school around the idea that, when taken whole, these disciplines are essential components of being educated. The question “Why do we have to know this?” is the cry of students mired down in the parts of our disciplines, yearning for the whole.

If students truly understood the beauty and utility of each discipline, they’d already have their answer. Each discipline is composed of ways of making meaning of, and communicating about, our complex world. Decades ago, cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner said, “The first object of any act of learning…is that it should serve us in the future” (Bruner, 1963). He asserts that the key to transferring our learning to new situations is to grasp the structure of a subject. This structure is what allows us to transfer our understanding to unlock new situations.

How do we reveal this structure to our students?

We can use a simple three step process to help our students grasp the structure of any subject, field, sport, hobby, or topic. First, they acquire understanding of individual concepts, then they connect two or more concepts in relationship, then they transfer them to new situations. See the figure below and read more about this process here.

But how do we decide which concepts to acquire, connect, and transfer? Before we begin, we often need to declutter the curriculum. We’ve known for over 20 years that most schools in the United States have too many benchmarks and learning standards. In fact, we’d have to add 10 years to formal schooling to teach all of them well (Marzano and Kendall, 1998).

Essential Concepts and Skills

We need to begin with the most essential concepts and skills for our grade level and course – the concepts that will help our students grasp the fundamental structure of our discipline or course that will unlock new situations.

We must ask ourselves: What are the most essential, transferable, organizing concepts that help students to unlock new situations? According to Dr. Gerald Nosich, a pioneer in designing curriculum to promote critical thinking, these are called fundamental and powerful concepts. Deep understanding of these concepts will help students relate about nearly everything else they learn throughout the year and allow them to grasp the underlying structure of the discipline (Nosich, 2005).

For instance, the essential concepts of author, audience, and purpose help young readers analyze nearly any text they are presented with. Imagine the second-grade teacher who spends considerable time developing students’ understanding of just these three concepts and their relationships to one another. With every text that students read, he pauses to have them visualize the author. Who created this? What do we know about him or her? What might his influences be? The teacher takes the time to show videos of authors talking about their work and their writing process. He has students write “author’s statements” to accompany the stories they compose themselves. The teacher does the same deep work with the concepts of audience and purpose.

Soon, students instinctively look for these elements when they engage with a new text. They begin to ask themselves, how are the author, audience, and purpose of this text connected to one another? Over the course of the year, they see over and over again that authors tailor what they write to their intended audience in order to achieve their purpose for writing.

Think of all of the other profound and useful ideas students might uncover by focusing on these three concepts:

  • An author chooses words carefully to paint a picture of the story in the audience’s heads.
  • The purpose of a persuasive text is to convince the audience of the author’s main idea.
  • Two authors might write very different texts on the same topic because they are writing for different audiences or have different purposes.
  • Authors of informational text use extra features – bold words, sidebars, icons, captions, subheadings – to help the audience understand their ideas and achieve the author’s purpose.
  • Authors of literary texts use illustrations to convey meaning about characters, setting, and the plot so that the audience can better understand the story.

Notice that many other disciplinary concepts – word choice, point of view, persuasion, etc. – can be taught in relation to the three essential concepts selected. Notice, too, that these concepts are so fundamental that they underpin nearly every act of reading, so whether the teacher presents students with a fairy tale or an article on weather patterns, they can unlock meaning in the text through their understanding of author, audience, and purpose.

There is a difference between essential concepts and other important concepts in your course. Essential concepts form the foundation for reasoning well within the discipline. They are meant to be so universally applicable within the discipline that they would help a student approach nearly any topic, lesson, or exercise throughout the year. They are concepts that, when understood deeply, create the habits of mind required to deal with novel situations flexibly, systematically, and confidently.

To determine essential concepts to guide your curriculum, consider the following questions:

  • If I randomly selected any standard, opened up to any page in my textbook, or pulled out any difficult assignment, which 2-3 ideas would I want students to activate in their minds to think things through?
  • If students could only remember three key ideas from my course, which three ideas would most equip them to approach new phenomena?
  • What ideas do we come back to again and again in my course?
  • Whenever we begin a new unit or topic, what do I want my students to look for? When they approach a new text or problem, what should they pay attention to?
  • Which concepts “unlock” all the others?

Below are a few other examples we’ve used when working with teachers in a variety of subject areas. The lists include our initial brainstorm with the top concepts circled that we selected as essential. You should have these conversations with fellow teachers at your school or district to determine what you think are the most essential concepts for your course. Remember, less is certainly more when we think about the most essential, transferrable, organizing concepts!

Use this planning template to help you figure out the most essential concepts and skills for your course.

If you like these ideas, consider joining this webinar and sign up for news about our online courses launching soon!


  • Bruner, J (1977). The Process of Education (2nd Ed). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Marzano, R. & Kendall, J. (1998). Awash in a Sea of Standards, McREL: Aurora, Colorado.
  • Nosich, G. (2005). Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum (2nd Ed). Pearson: Prentice Hall.
  • Stern, J., Ferraro, F., & Mohnkern, J. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.