Concept Based Teaching: A Partial Embrace

Part 1
Part 2

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.

Part 3

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, “As we present it, concept-based instruction must begin with content skills and knowledge established by local standards and curriculum guides.”

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 trying to build student schemas deliberately. I am not sure why they don’t use the established language for this and invented “new” terms.) Two, I am tired.

Part 2
Part 3