Concept-based learning for today’s students

What’s the big idea? Is a change in focus and approach the way forward for educators?

By Sebastien Barnard, Regional Communications & Marketing Manager APAC, International Baccalaureate


Everyone talks about concept-driven, inquiry-based learning, but what does it look like in practice? What curriculum architecture and programme requirements can we imagine that might lead to the desired outcomes? How do we overcome the tyranny of content-driven classrooms and examinations? Contemporary curriculum experts agree that conceptual understanding is key for student success in school, jobs, and life.


A concept-driven, inquiry-based education focuses on learners, (WHO). International Baccalaureate programmes, for example, promote open communication based on understanding and respect and encourage students to become active, compassionate, lifelong learners. This type of education is holistic in nature, with the whole person in mind, concerned with cognitive development, social, emotional and physical well-being.


A concept-driven education develops effective approaches to teaching and learning (HOW). Empowering young people for a lifetime of learning, independently and in collaboration with others. Preparing a community of learners that engage with global challenges through inquiry, action and reflection.


At its heart this type of education should work within global contexts (WHY). Students increase their understanding of language and culture (multilingualism and intercultural understanding) and this encourages global and local engagement, including developmentally appropriate aspects of challenges in the environment, development, conflict, rights, cooperation and governance.


This type of education also explores significant content (WHAT) and provides opportunities to develop both disciplinary and interdisciplinary understanding. It offers curriculum frameworks and courses that are broad and balanced, conceptual and connected and finally rigorously assessed.  


Concept-driven curriculum

Know and do versus know and do and understand….we have too often assumed that if students knew and did, they would understand.  Unfortunately, this is not the case. Conceptual understanding adds a depth-dimension to students’ educational experience.


In practical terms, educational frameworks establish a common core of big ideas that matter. These key concepts form the heart of a connected curriculum. They come from and are shared across academic disciplines. They unify students’ academic experience and provide teachers with a common vocabulary. Concepts create a culture of thinking that invites students to see connections, contradictions, alternative perspectives and different ways of thinking. At a time when adolescents are beginning to move into more sophisticated modes of abstract thinking, concepts offer students something consistent to think about over time and across subjects.


Concepts are not single words, but complex ideas that can shape teaching and learning. Examples such as Identity, Logic, Perspective, Relationship and Systems can run through a typical student’s school week. Imagine how teachers of different disciplines might be able to use these big ideas as stepping stones, ladders or bridges to the facts, concepts and debates that they want students to uncover and explore.


In addition to these big overarching ideas, concept-driven education structures the curriculum with discipline-specific related concepts that provide depth and focus. They narrow the scope of inquiry, while leaving enough room to integrate a wide range of content that is appropriate or required in local or national contexts. Related concepts invite teachers and students to go beyond studying facts to thinking about what those facts mean and why they are relevant.


This is an important feature of concept-driven education. Teaching and learning needs to reflect both how knowledge is structured in the real world and how we learn. These days, facts are easily and inexpensively ‘knowable’. However they often remain distinct and without any connection to each other, except through the strategy of grouping them into topics. This is where most educational systems stop. A concept-based education goes on to ask, what do these facts mean? How are they related? To which ideas do they give us entry?


We know that students learn by taking what they know and then building on it. We know that the holy grail of education—the ability to transfer understanding from one experience or domain to another—is facilitated by discussions around concepts. We have cellular evidence that we build memories by making connections and building rich networks of associations and multiple pathways for access. Concepts help this happen; they are the superhighways of learning.


Inquiry-based learning

Concepts change the way that teachers teach and student learn. They inflect the nature of classroom assignments and assessment, both formal and informal. Concept-driven education facilitates classroom discussion that will focus on how things are the same and how they are different; also, how what we know about the past, for example, can help us to understand the present.


Concept-driven education helps students develop structured inquiry into big ideas that matter and then helps them to assess how much they really understand through a rich and varied programme of assessment—some of it potentially highly digital – that allows flexible choice of content that supports conceptual learning, or that is compatible with national curriculum. These are 21st century requirements for teachers engaged with future students being born now who will probably live into the 22nd century.


Based on presentations by Robert Harrison, (@Robert_ibmyp), Head MYP Development, International Baccalaureate


About the author


Founded in 1968, the International Baccalaureate® (IB) is a non-profit educational foundation offering four highly respected programmes of international education that develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world. Sebastien joined the IB in 2011 and has over 18 years’ experience as a marketing communications, media, public relations and brand reputation management professional. He is also an IB Diploma graduate from UWCSEA.


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