I’m not a fan of concept posters. I dislike those 8 laminated words displayed on the wall.
You see, I don’t much care whether a student can remember the term “causation”. I think it’s a cumbersome, clunky noun that is unnecessary in the vocabulary of a 7-year-old English language learner.
But don’t sack me just yet – because I do care deeply that the same child can ask “why?”, design repeated experiments to test cause/effect, come to a conclusion about why dominoes fall, and see the bigger picture of how “the domino effect” is relevant to their physical world, the consequences of their actions and the interdependence of families. My students may never say the word “causation”, but deep conceptual understanding will be achieved in my classroom, if I’m doing my job.
(Please see references below. Lynn Erickson is the undisputed hero in this field.)
Concepts in a Nutshell
Concepts are over-arching mental constructs that students need to make sense of the content we teach. Conceptual understanding enables students to apply facts and skills to the world around them. By starting with concepts, we create a curriculum that’s worthy of our students’ time and effort. The concepts that drive the PYP are timeless (factual examples change, but not the core understanding), universal (so students can apply understandings across cultures, situations and disciplines) and abstract (so students engage in higher order thinking to grapple with central ideas).
By helping students achieve conceptual understanding, we ensure that they can take facts and skills, and do something with them beyond this moment, this lesson and this classroom. I have seen plenty of students who can accurately convert between metres & centimetres but are unable to choose an appropriate length of skipping rope for a 3-person playground game. These students had mastered a mathematical skill in isolation, but not yet developed a conceptual understanding of length.
Why concept-driven teaching is easy
Once you’re on the path, your whole day will open up. You won’t be stressed about finding time to “fit in” length, area, volume plus a Unit of Inquiry into Homes. Teaching through a conceptual lens compacts your curriculum. By designing an inquiry around a couple of significant concepts (in this case, form & connection), you can effectively tie together all those facts and skills. You will spend more time inquiring and less time spoon-feeding. It’s not difficult: students construct homes from cardboard boxes to suit certain environments, while exploring faces, edges, vertices, strength, number of houses that will fit on one street, surface area to volume ratio etc. Did you notice that the content became increasingly complex? Differentiation’s a snap with conceptual teaching! (Box Homes project by @LaraRonalds).
Why concept-driven teaching is hard
It’s just so messy. Concept-driven learning is an iterative process of constantly pulling apart ideas, putting them back together, re-applying them to different situations, finding ways to correct misconceptions and enabling each child to make meaning in their own way. It would be a lot easier to say, “Here’s what you need to know, practise that, now you get a sticker.” The problem is that you’d have to add, “Good luck applying that to your life or feeling any sense of excitement”. Factual knowledge is easy to teach because it is simple, procedural and locked in situ. But unless your students intend to live forever in their 4th Grade classroom, that knowledge is utterly useless to them.
How can I make it happen?
Use teacher and student questions as a springboard for deep, conceptual dialogue. Sort, unpack and challenge students’ questions. Discuss open vs. closed questions, abstract vs. concrete questions, fat vs. thin questions (i.e. 1 answer or many). Keep asking probing questions (such as How do you know..?/reflection) to prevent shallow understanding. The questions attached to the PYP concepts are very helpful drivers of conceptual inquiry.
Design resources and situations that are problematic. Perhaps the facts don’t add up, or there are pieces of information missing. This challenges students to search for connections, inferences and transference to make sense of the inquiry. Anything that is non-linear, with multiple solutions and multiple interpretations helps our students build the flexibility of thinking to grapple with complexity, change and abstraction.
Every day! Make sure you devote enough time for students to actually do the learning and construct the understanding. They need ample time for wondering, trying, tinkering, playing, researching and coming to conclusions. Don’t step away. Be a participant who says, “Why did you…?”, “What would happen if…?”
Work with single-subject teachers to develop integrated thinking. Students should take their understandings from class to class, exploring concepts through different content and perspectives (e.g. symphony orchestras and bus timetables both build an understanding of systems). Try to keep concepts at the core of your planning meetings, to avoid creating shallow, thematic units. Avoid throwing together “linked activities”. If the students are studying Ancient Greece, don’t immediately say, “Let’s make pots!”. Perhaps the most important concept is “legacies” (connection) and students investigate the influence of the golden ratio on both Art and Mathematics. While studying natural disasters, let students make paper mache volcanoes at home. In class, explore the concept of “impact” (change) on geography, individual lives and communities. How do artists help communities remember and heal after a natural disaster?
I love a concept-driven curriculum. I love the fact that the PYP challenges us to teach and learn through a conceptual lens every day. I do believe the 8 Key Concepts provide a strong framework for developing inquiries.
But my students will never recite those 8 words on the wall and I’m fine with that. They’re too busy constructing conceptual understandings.
Erickson, HL. 2012. Concept-based teaching and learning. IB position paper. Cardiff, UK. International Baccalarueate.
Erickson, HL. 2007. Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press.
Erickson, HL. 2008. Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press.
IB. 2007. Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education. Cardiff, UK. International Baccalaureate.