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Building a Concept-Based Curriculum

By Leila Holmyard
Building a Concept-Based Curriculum

In the recently released second edition of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, authors H. Lynn Erickson, Lois A. Lanning, and Rachel French offer a book for classroom teachers, curriculum leaders, and administrators seeking to recapture the innate curiosity of students.
Supported by the works of such educational heavyweights as Ron Ritchhart, John Hattie, and Grant Wiggins, the authors argue that it is through integrating facts with the deeper concepts that underpin them that students develop the skills and dispositions needed to successfully navigate the present day.
I asked French what first drew her to concept-driven education. “It was not until I started teaching internationally that I came across the [IB Primary Years Programme (PYP)] and Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction,” French explained. “When I discovered the work of Dr. Lynn Erickson and Dr. Lois Lanning, the PYP and concept-based approach to curriculum really made sense to me. It has changed the way I think about education!”
Concept-based learning is driven by universal themes rather than content. This, says French, “helps to ease the pressure of a content-coverage model by focusing on transferable understandings.” As emphasized in her book, however, concepts don’t replace content. Rather, factual examples are used to make connections as students link facts to their own personal experiences and prior learning. This requires critical thinking and problem solving, and thus leads to a deeper understanding of the content.
As an experienced international educator and, most recently, PYP Coordinator at Frankfurt International School in Germany, French has had many opportunities to put the theory into practice. She describes an example of what concept-driven education looks like in her classroom: “I was working with Grade 4 students on a leadership unit, and one stated: ‘We understand that a leader’s beliefs drive their actions.’ He supported this understanding with a case study that he had researched. ‘Harriet Tubman believed that people should not be slaves, so she risked her life to help free people.’ Another student provided further support for the idea, adding, ‘Gandhi believed in nonviolent action, so he fasted and organized peaceful protests.’ A third student added, ‘Martin Luther King believed that everyone should have equal rights and so he organized protests and did his “I have a Dream” speech’.”
French advocates concept-based learning as a pedagogical approach well-suited to K–12 classrooms. The approach dovetails with the inquiry-based nature of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes, although there are some areas where the two differ, as French explains: “One of the biggest differences between what we recommend and the IB programmes is that we suggest 5 to 9 conceptual understandings per unit. If we are going to spend 5 to 8 weeks on a unit, is reasonable to think that there is only one thing that we want students to understand?”
I asked French if she could share some strategies for teachers interested in transitioning from a traditional content-driven model of education to a concept-based approach. “For a teacher new to [concept-based instruction], I recommend that you begin by thinking about the kinds of questions that you ask in the class. Aim to ask a mix of factual and conceptual questions to guide students to deeper understanding.”
French also offered some specific advice for MYP and PYP teachers who begin their planning with a central idea or statement of inquiry. “Try an inductive approach for your next unit. Instead of telling the students the understanding at the beginning, use your factual and conceptual questions and let them do the thinking to come up with the understandings themselves.”
These strategies are described in more detail in French’s book, which provides straightforward guidance for the development of a concept-based curriculum, including many real-life examples and resources from a wide range of levels and subject areas. There is a step-by-step template and guide for planning a concept-based unit, clear comparisons between content-based and concept-based approaches, and a myth-busters section which dispels common misconceptions about concept-based learning.
French emphasizes the need for schools to invest time in professional development to empower teachers: “If teachers are not able to express the intended understandings from a unit, how can we expect the student to get there?”
French’s book provides a compelling case for a paradigm shift in schools from a traditional content-based approach to a concept-based model of curriculum development and instruction.
Leila is an education consultant and writer based in Germany.

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