Concept Based Teaching: A Hesitating Embrace

Implementing a concept based curriculum can be a challenge because curriculum has traditionally been based around topics, not concepts (Erickson, 2011). Erickson contrasts topic based curriculum and concept based curriculum in the following manner.

Topic Based Curriculum Concept Based Curriculum
Coverage Centered Idea Centered
Intellectually shallow Intellectual depth
Fails to allow for transfer Concepts and generalizations transfer
Fails to meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century Develops the intellect to handle a world of increasing complexity and accelerating change

While this was taken from a powerpoint (above link) and therefore the text must be brief, I am not happy with her comparisons here. It is simply saying the old is bad, but my way, my way is the way forward, my way is good. It is intellectually lazy. However, a bad presentation does not necessary make the idea (concept based teaching) bad.

To actually implement concept based teaching, you need to focus on a concept, not a topic. For example, traditionally, I would teach my 6th grade students about various topics such as river erosion, glacial erosion, wave erosion, and wind erosion. In a concept based teaching approach, my “big idea” would be Forces that shape Earth’s Surface and the concept would be Weathering and Erosion. My students must know about weathering and erosion in various situations (river, glacial, wave, wind) if they are to understand how and why weathering and erosion help shape the Earth’s surface. I would continue teaching in much the same way, but with the key difference being that I would actively work to link the topics together in my students’ minds. This is where I see the biggest positives from this approach. Teaching for conceptual understanding forces teachers to intentionally show their students the connections and relationships between different topics.

So in this example, I would teach students how the water cycle is driven by the sun. And that the sun creates winds. And then the water cycle and winds interact with Earth’s surface structures which formed via plate tectonics (Another concept with various topics to link back and connect with).

The idea is for a “big idea” of teaching for conceptual understanding is to force synergistic interplay, which, according to H. Lynn Erickson involves students shifting between factual and conceptual levels within the structure of knowledge. And, to be honest, I do not like the term synergistic interplay. There are already terms for this (schema), why did she feel the need to invent a brand new one?

Regardless, let’s look into how the designers of conceptual understanding say you should implement their system.

Rachel French, “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.”

This sounds great to me and lines up with what research shows. We should teach students facts, but not facts in isolation.

Ms. French goes on to say,  “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.”

This is part that I cannot go along with. This method is simply too time consuming to be effective.

After students have mastered the concept in one situation, I would be fine with giving them the pieces and having them make connections themselves. For example, I have taught my 6th grade students about weathering and erosion. After going over the necessary terms, we then immediately apply them to a scenario. There are 2 hills, Hill A and Hill B. Both hills are in a rainy environment and are the same height and slope. But Hill A is covered with thick vegetation, while Hill B is bare. We then work together to explain which hill will undergo less erosion and why. As we do this, I am making explicit each part of the “erosion formula” (amount of water/water speed, slope, soil type, plant coverage). Next, I might give students more independent work in a similar scenario but where students compare and contrast erosion rates on two rivers by going through our “erosion formula”. At this point, depending on how the class is doing, we may move to other scenarios that would involve further transfer. Such as wind erosion in deserts/grasslands.

I may have irresolvable philosophical conflicts with how the creators of Conceptual Understanding say it should be implemented. Based on my research, H. Lynn Erickson and Rachel French are advocating for an inquiry based approach where students “come up with understandings” themselves. By using this type of inquiry approach, we may be leading students to make false connections and as a result, students may be building inaccurate concepts by learning something that is untrue.

I think that this approach can also easily lead to advantaging the advantaged and disadvantaging those who are already disadvantaged. This happens because the advantaged students who already have a wealth of background knowledge/academic language would be more likely to make correct connections/understandings whereas the disadvantaged students would be more likely to make incorrect connections/understandings and then they would fall further behind.

All of that to say, I am all for the goals of conceptual understanding and find the structure provided by H. Lynn Erickson to be tremendously helpful. (image below)

structure of knowledge

I will take aspects of conceptual understanding and apply it to my own teaching and I am confident that borrowing aspects of Conceptual Understanding will improve my teaching and help my students to understand how different concepts are related and interact.


Concept Based Education: The Structure of Knowledge

H. Lynn Erickson has developed a model for the structure of knowledge where multiple facts fit inside a topic. From the topic, at least one larger concept arises. Then, from the concepts, a broad, generalizable principal can be found. From this principle, one can create an accurate theory.

There are researchers who refer to both facts and concepts as knowledge, but Erickson finds it to be helpful to separate factual knowledge from conceptual understanding. The basic idea being that there are different types of knowledge. This would seem to make sense to me after all, we already distinguish between declarative and procedural knowledge. I also like that the foundation to Erickson’s model is facts. I feel strongly that knowing facts (memorization) is incredibly important for students to actually learn and apply concepts. So, while some researchers may quibble over certain definitions, I do like the diagram and find it to be useful.

structure of knowledgeThe next step is to understand each stage in the framework of knowledge.

Facts: statements that are true

Topics: collections of related facts

Concepts: mental abstracts that are abstract, timeless, and universal (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p.33)

Principle Generalization: The relationship between 2 or more concepts (conceptual relationships)

The goal of Erickson’s structure of learning is to make explicit the goal of concept based teaching, transfer. All teachers want students to apply what they are learning to their lives. Doing so inevitably involves some amount of transfer. The basic idea behind concept based teaching is that facts and topics, in and of themselves are non transferable, but concepts are.

Whenever we apply our knowledge from one situation to another, we are always abstracting to a conceptual level. We are taking specific knowledge and generalizing into a broader form until it fits the new situation.

It is important to note, facts are important. You cannot get to the conceptual level if you lack facts. If you lack facts, you do not have any content to generalize or transfer. So, you must have facts, and you must teach facts. But you must not stop at a “fact” level. Go beyond facts. Have students apply them and generalize.

In my next post I will explore how we can teach for conceptual understanding. I am still unsure about teaching for “conceptual understanding” as I mentioned in my last post because it seems to be creating new, unnecessary vocabulary. That said, I am all for its aims. I want my students to know stuff and be able to apply it to a wide variety of circumstances. The more I read, the more positive towards concept based teaching I am becoming.


The content for this post was largely from a free chapter in the book, “Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary: Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning

Concept Based Instruction/Teaching

My school is looking into moving towards concept based instruction as a way to help students understand each subject’s “big idea” better. This sounds good. Who wouldn’t want students to understand the “big ideas” of math/science/English/social studies?

However, I am not sure what this approach practically entails. This blog post is my first exploration into concept based instruction, my attempt to understand its “big ideas”.

Concept Based Teaching is “driven by “big ideas” rather than subject specific content (Erickson, 2008).

Teachers apply this method by “leading students to consider the context in which they will use their understanding, concept-based learning brings “real world” meaning to content knowledge and skills. Students become critical thinkers which is essential to their ability to creatively solve problems in the 21st century.”

The “big idea” of concept based instruction is finding ways to help students become able to transfer their knowledge to new situations. Transfer is great, and I am all for it.

What are concepts? topics vs concepts.PNG

So far, I am largely liking what I am reading regarding concept based teaching. The initial definition gave me some pause with “leading students to consider the context”. Why lead them when I can just tell them and then get them to apply it? But I was comforted by Josh and Joanne Edwards statement that concept based teaching must begin with content and skills before leading to concepts and finally to action.

I am going to end this article here for two reasons. One, I am finding the vocabulary of concept based teaching very difficult. I need to do a lot more reading before I can understand it (It seems like concept based instruction is just deliberately trying to build student schemas. I am not sure why they don’t use the established language for this and invented “new” terms.) Two, I am tired.

Book Review: Bringing Words To Life

Authors: Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, & Linda Kucan

Rating (out of 5): ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

To put things simply, this book should be considered required reading for teachers. Its strategies and concepts are applicable for every subject at all grade levels. The authors do a tremendous job of accessibly distilling research into a book for teachers. As you read through the book you will notice that it is well researched and builds towards a common theme: In order to learn new words students need multiple exposures in multiple contexts with multiple opportunities to use the words in multiple contexts.

This may seem obvious, and hopefully it is. However, the reality is that in many classrooms, this does not happen. The book gives teachers numerous strategies to remedy this educational malady.

The book is divided into 10 chapters. The first walks you through the rationale behind “Robust Vocabulary Instruction”. While the rest give ways to apply the approach in the classroom.

I found chapter 2 to be particularly insightful. This chapter walks teachers through how to choose vocabulary words. It guides the teacher through a vocabulary selection process involving the somewhat vague but still very useful word tiers (Tier 1, Tier 2, & Tier 3). Essentially, Tier 1 words are common and used often in both reading and writing. Tier 2 words are common in writing, but not as common in speaking. While Tier 3 words are content specific.

Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3










The authors argue for teachers to focus on Tier 2 words because they are widely applicable, used in many situations, and Tier 1 words tend to already be known while Tier 3 words tend to be taught as part of the standard course content.

Chapter 3 answers the questions of when?, How many?, and How? to introduce vocabulary words. It found that, teachers can introduce the vocabulary word as it appears in the text, provided the word can be immediately understood when accompanied by a short explanation (a phrase or a sentence). The explanation must short because, when reading a text, the focus ought to be on comprehending, not vocab building. Words should be taught before they come up in a text when those words essential for understanding the text’s message. It is also important to limit the amount of words introduced to avoid overwhelming students’ working memories.

The authors recommend teachers teach between 6-10 words spread over 5-9 days. To implement this, regardless of which Tier the words happen to be in, they promote introducing half of the words on day one, and the other half on day two. Throughout this timeframe, It is important to repeatedly have students refer back to and use the words.

As far as how to introduce new words, the authors recommend avoiding asking students, “Who knows what word ‘X’ means?” The reason is that, a student may give an unclear/incorrect answer which can lead to other students learning an incorrect definition/association. Instead, teachers should provide student friendly definitions and an immediate chance to apply the word in a simple context. Over time, as the students are using the vocabulary, their teacher should ensure that they use the vocabulary in situations that offer both different contexts and difficulties. This will help ensure students are able to know, understand, and apply the word and it increases the chances of the word becoming part of their used vocabulary. The rest of the book digs further into the “how” of how to teach vocabulary.

A lot of the insights from this book may appear to be commonsensical because the ideas are so simple (Ex: multiple exposures helps students learn). But consistently applying them well is a challenge.

Buy it here:

Day Two: Messy Labs and Learning

I am doing a long term lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Click here to read about day one.

Day two was much less stressful for me because the setup portion of the lab was complete. My students just needed to use the aquaponics system to make observations. We have made observations before, but always of inanimate objects, where there is a clear focus. Living organisms move and react to stimulus, making it difficult for students to choose an organism or behavior to focus on and observe.

I did not calculate this new difficulty into my planning. I assumed that an observation was an observation. I reviewed how to make good observations with my students in the warm up, had them practice on their own with some quick examples (courtesy of my actions), then we made observations from a video of my own fish tank, finally I set half of the class loose on observations (remember, I only have enough supplies for ½ of my students to use the aquaponics systems at a time). The other half of students were given a reading about how beavers interact with their environment.

My biggest take home from this lesson was, equipment limitations stink. It would be much easier to do this lab if each group could work on it at the same time. That being said, my students were focused and working hard throughout the lesson, both the observers and the beaver researchers. The observations took longer than anticipated due to the novelty of observing moving organisms. I had planned on having each group make observations, but there simply wasn’t time. So, the other group will make observations in the next class.

The other take home was more obvious in hindsight. I should have found a reading that directly related to our aquaponics system. I want my students to have the knowledge to apply what we are learning (ecosystems and organism interactions) to multiple situations, which is why I have given them the reading on how beavers interact with their environment (which is excellent, check it out if you teach science: Beavers and the Environment). But, they struggled to pull the information out of the text for two reasons.

  1. Taiwan does not have beavers, so my students are very unfamiliar with them. The brief mini-lesson on beavers and the environment was insufficient to allow them to make the connections I was hoping for.
  2. They have not mastered the concept of organism interactions within a familiar ecosystem, so they cannot yet effectively generalize the concept.

Doing a lab with half the class at a time has been challenging and helpful for me. It is helping me hone my classroom management strategies and therefor grow as a teacher. For the rest of this lab (about 1 month) I will ensure that the half of the class not using the aquaponics system will be doing a task that is directly related to aquaponics. And in the future, we will generalize the concepts (organism interactions) starting as a whole class.

Day 1: Messy Labs and Learning

I am an elementary science teacher and I have decided to start a long term science lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Getting 5th graders to set up an aquaponics system is no small task. It was messy.

I was limited to 6 small aquariums to split among 60 students. I decided that groups of 5 would be best, with each group responsible for ½ of the aquarium. Here is a picture of the finished aquaponics system.

While one group of 5 was prepping their half of the aquarium portion, the other was preparing the growbed for our chia and mung bean seeds.

Things were smooth to this point. But shortly afterwards, it devolved into chaos. The group prepping the growbed was supposed to read through the lesson in the textbook when they finished and then they would transition to preparing their half of the aquarium. However, only the conscientious students did this. Many good students and nearly all of my poorer students did next to no reading and decided to chat and play instead.

I believe the reason for this is twofold. One, the area each group should be working in was not clear. Two, I did not have students create a product with the reading. So many students likely felt that they could just do it later or not at all because they are not producing any work for me to grade.

Now, I believe that my students should do as they are told. They didn’t, and their poor behavior is on them. But at the same time, I am responsible for the structure and content of my lessons. The unclarity that helped lead to poor behavior is on me.

In the future, I will clearly demark the areas for each group. This will remove one uncertainty. Students will know where they should be. I will also make students produce some type of work. By forcing students to make a product, I am giving them a concrete goal, something tangible that can be measured. I will also be guiding my students via the assignment.

I believe that these two, relatively small tweaks to my lesson plan will have outsized outcomes. I will find out if this is true tomorrow, when half the class will make observations while the other half does some research. Today was messy, but groundwork for the lab and learning was laid. 

How To Teach A Science Lab: Like A Circus

Labs are the most difficult component to teaching science and it can feel like you are trying to conduct a circus performance on the fly. They are difficult primarily because they are not something you or your students do everyday. You do not have as much practice teaching labs, because most of your lessons are not a lab. Most of your lessons involve you teaching background knowledge and having students apply it in a theoretical sense. Whereas a lab involves applying knowledge in a practical sense.

Think of the circus. Before the performers can perform, they must practice each step many times so they can understand and know what to do and when/how to do it. Science labs are similar. Before most of your students can perform a lab, they must have enough subject background knowledge to effectively create and test a hypothesis (an outstanding few will come in with enough background knowledge) while also already possessing background knowledge of how to use the scientific method.

Then, you MUST require students to write some type of lab report. The entire purpose of the lab is to one, apply what students have been learning and two, further their knowledge in their testing of the hypothesis. Writing a lab report forces the student to reflect on what happened and why. The why has students looking back on what they have already learned in an effort to explain or justify what went right/wrong/as expected.

I have found that doing labs well requires spending an entire week on them (My students have 3 science classes per week). The amount of time you spend on a lab will vary depending on the level of students you teach (My students are 5th-6th grade).

Stage 1: Prep For The Lab

The first class involves preparing students for the lab. In this we review the background information, present the question, create a hypothesis (whole class, group, or individual depending on the lab), write the needed materials, and write the procedure. After you have done several labs in the same format, this stage can be done outside of class. You will need to have some sort of quality control for the procedure, otherwise chaos will reign when you teach the lab.

Stage 2: Perform The Lab

In the second class we perform the lab. This is the most difficult part of teaching a lab for obvious reasons. In order to reduce both difficulty and frustration, I have found the following to be extremely helpful. HAVE CLEAR RULES AND ENFORCE THEM!

  1. Hopefully you have fun. You must get work done.
  2. You must perform one step at a time (by following the teacher’s lead)
  3. You must communicate quietly, in whispers
  4. Record all you data and observations
  5. Cleanup quickly and quietly

That is it. Some may cringe when they read rule number one and two. But that is only because they are reading them draconian measures. Simply, they are not. Rule one works well because it rhymes and students remember it. I tell them that science is fun and I hope they enjoy labs and classes (I do!) but that they are here to learn first and foremost so I require them to work (I demand it!).

The second rule is also eminently necessary for a successful lab, especially for younger students who have less knowledge of both science content and the scientific method. By following step-by-step, standardized instructions you minimize off task behavior and guarantee that students are actually testing their hypothesis, making the lab successful.

That being said, there is a benefit and reason for allowing students to go at their own pace with their own procedure (often nearer the end of a term). When doing this, you are assessing how well the students can follow the scientific method in addition to their understanding of the current content and you will find that many students/groups will need more time to complete the lab.

Stage 3: The Report

The entire third class consists of writing a lab report. The report begins with students analyzing their data. Generally this will involve students creating and interpreting a graph. After this, students will accept or reject their hypothesis. This will then be followed by at least a paragraph explaining why they accept/reject their hypothesis with explicit references to their data.

Again, if you do not require your students to write a lab report, what is the point of doing the lab? It will hopefully be fun, but the purpose is to have students apply/learn the scientific method and to learn more about science. This is best done by requiring reflection in the form of lab reports. Do the lab reports!

After you have done several labs with students, the report can generally be done successfully outside of class (use your discernment).

Labs are a crazy circus. Embrace it. Teach them like the circus they are by training your students and they will wow you with their creative performances, just like the circus!