Students Need Concept-Based Teaching to Thrive in a World Flooded with “Facts”

“What makes you say that?” These are the five words that scholars at Harvard’s Visible Thinking project suggest teachers use to help their students think more deeply and explain their response(s).

If that sentence grabs your attention, then you might be interested in reading one of my new favorite books, Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding: Harnessing Natural Curiosity for Learning That Transfers, by Julie Stern and her colleagues. The book is actually published in two versions – one for elementary and one for the secondary grades. (I happened to read the elementary edition, but the core content is similar, with each edition tailored to a different age span.)

Stern is a professional developer, instructional coach, and co-founder of Education to Save the World, an organization designed to help teachers organize learning around real-world, relevant problems that require deep thinking. Not coincidentally, this organization also designs this learning around the importance of creating a “more sustainable, just, and healthy planet” (p. xiii).

The book opens with the authors positing a “false choice” – that teachers must either continue using the teacher-as-knowledge-expert model within the traditional core subjects, or embrace a totally new pedagogy organized around innovation and creativity.

Instead, the authors suggest, “Innovation requires the creative transfer of the fundamental and powerful concepts of the traditional disciplines.” Rather than tossing them out, teachers can organize the core subjects around real-world challenges for students to confront (p. 1).

(I)n our complex world, it is impossible to teach students everything they need to know. Pushing more factual content ignores what we know about how children learn and endangers their love of learning. Concept-based teaching helps young learners uncover conceptual relationships in a way that is developmentally appropriate. ~ from the Publisher’s description.

No one would disagree that the body of knowledge associated with each discipline is critical to problem-solving and innovation. Yet, it takes more than informational knowledge to solve the multitude of challenges facing us. Today’s students will be expected to solve problems that we’ve never experienced before. Organizing the curriculum around “abstract concepts” enables students to apply what they’ve learned to do exactly that.

After the authors explain the “why” behind the need for conceptual understanding (it’s centered on one important word: transfer), they provide their readers with practical ideas on how to teach this way. The book is packed full of suggestions, strategies, and self-assessments that can be used in the classroom.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve tweeted quite a lot about this book. It has so much to offer. The challenge in writing this blog is to keep it relatively short, so I’m going to just touch on a few highlights.

Organizing a Conceptual Learning Classroom

Chapter Two explains how to organize a classroom around conceptual learning. Tips include understanding that students usually approach the learning of a new concept with only surface knowledge, misconceptions, or no knowledge at all. The authors encourage teachers embracing this way of teaching to remember that “Developing conceptual understanding works differently.”

This approach to teaching isn’t just telling students when they’ve ‘got it.’ Learning is evolutionary. “Giving lessons where students compare their understanding before and after, and showing them models of student work that increase in sophistication, will help them reorient their expectations of what learning feels like” (p. 43).

Chapter Three addresses the building blocks of concept-based instruction. One of the many tables featured in the book suggests examples of conceptual questions teachers might use.

Addressing Assessment

Chapter Five introduces four principles for assessment in a concept-based classroom:

  1. Transfer is the ultimate goal
  2. Mistakes are important
  3. It’s not about right or wrong—it’s about progress and evidence
  4. Feedback throughout—not just at the end

Taking this approach enables teachers and students to “constantly collect” evidence of learning, while student receive feedback to enable them to “figure out what to do next” (p. 116). This chapter also provides samples of effective feedback and how to give it, along with a tool to enable students to process that feedback – pointing students to the feedback rather than simply the grade, encouraging them to spend time thinking about their learning, their misconceptions, and their next steps.

It’s About Equity

By far, however, my favorite chapter is near the end of the book and titled “How Can We Work Toward Equity in a Concept-Based Classroom?” The chapter begins with a definition of equity from The National Equity Project: “Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.”

This chapter is organized around four major areas:

  1. Teacher expectations and relationships with students
  2. Purposeful and clear goals, activities, instructions, and assessments
  3. Constant collection of evidence, feedback, and goal setting by teacher and students
  4. Flexible grouping based on what students need at that moment to reach the goal

The chapter also encourages teachers to be thoughtful about their language:

A plethora of tables, strategies, and suggestions are embedded in this chapter including:

  • Teacher expectations and action steps
  • Steps for clarity
  • Tips for effective differentiation
  • Responding to assessment data
  • Teacher self-assessment on equitable classrooms

Aligned With Other Education Scholars

Throughout the book, connections were made with John Hattie’s work and the work of Ron Berger and the EL Education network. The conclusion of the next-to-last chapter sums up the purpose and content of the book:

Teaching is an incredibly complex act. And as research reveals more insights into the relationships between emotions and learning, it can seem like we keep discovering things that we need to stop doing and an avalanche of things we need to start doing. We have placed dozens of ideas and research into the context of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction throughout the book to aid teachers in putting the puzzle pieces together. But we adults have to ensure we have a growth mindset and use well-being strategies to keep up with the pace of teaching these days! 

It can help to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a perfect teacher, and there is no single way to approach the art and science of teaching. The most important thing is to be kind, encouraging, and positive with our students. A love of learning always flows from caring and enthusiastic teachers” (p. 174).

Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding challenges us to dig deep into its discussion, push our thinking, break out of our preconceptions, and learn to “harness natural curiosity” so that our students are able to transfer what they “know” in powerful ways.

This is a book that requires us to show both commitment and patience as professional learners, and it would be a perfect book for a small group of motivated colleagues to work through together, perhaps with the intention of sharing its big ideas with larger audiences. It could be a real game-changer.

Further Resources

Download Chapter 1 of the Secondary Edition

Browse the Google Preview of the Elementary Edition