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Teaching for Understanding
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Introduction to Throughlines

Overarching goals, or throughlines, describe the most important understandings that students should develop during an entire course. The understanding goals for particular units should be closely related to one or more of the overarching understanding goals of the course.

Identifying Throughlines

At the beginning of the semester you might write down the most important things you want your students to get out of your class—but plan to revisit and revise the list during the year. Once you have carried out several units, look for related goals or throughlines that appear more than once.

As with unit-long understanding goals, it often takes several rounds of revision to develop a good list of throughlines. However, unlike unit understanding goals, throughlines need to capture the essence of a whole course.

Throughlines often are rooted in deeply held but rarely articulated beliefs and values about both the subject matter and the teaching and learning processes. Therefore they often take longer to develop and refine that unit-long understanding goals - sometimes even several years.

Examples of Throughlines

  • For an American history course: "How does our historical past make us who we are today?"
  • For a general science course: "Students will understand that 'doing science' is not the process of finding facts but of constructing and testing theories."
  • For an algebra course: "How can we use what we know to figure out what we don't know?"
  • For a literature course: "Students will understand how metaphors shape the way we experience the world."

Planning Throughlines

In developing your overarching understanding goals, ask yourself, "When my students leave my class at the end of the course, what are the most important things I want them to take away with them?" Answering this question can be difficult. Often the goals that we consider most important are so deeply embedded in our thinking and teaching that we have a hard time articulating them. So if it seems that you have developed a list of overarching understanding goals that doesn't quite capture what you think is most essential, try some of the steps below:

  • Review several units you have planned (either using this framework or in other ways). What common themes emerge? What understanding, skills, or concepts resurface time and again as you plan and teach?

  • Ask your students what they hear you focusing on. Ask them what they think you want them to get from the class. And ask them what they want to get out of the class.

  • As with unit-long understanding goals, try stating overarching goals as both statements and questions.

Questions for Refining Throughlines

Overarching goals or throughlines:

  • Capture what you believe to be the most important things for students to learn in your class?

  • Phrased as questions and as statements (such as "Students will understand ..." or "Students will appreciate ...")?

  • Relate closely to generative topics and understanding goals for the units you want to create or have created?

© Tina Blythe and Associates, (1998). The Teaching for Understanding Guide. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco.


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