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.