This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a two-day workshop with Dr. Lynn Erickson, the guru of concept-based curriculum and instruction, and concept-based certified Jennifer Wathall (author of Concept-Based Mathematics) and Brendan Lee. The workshop was intense but highly valuable.
Over the course of #pypbookstudy, we have read two of Dr. Erickson’s books. This weekend was a fantastic opportunity to consolidate what I have learnt and build on it. Despite having a long way to go, I feel that I am on the right track. I am fully committed to becoming a quality concept-based teacher because I wholeheartedly understand its importance.
The intention of this blog post (my one hundredth blog post, incidentally) is to highlight some common misconceptions about concept-based curriculum and instruction (CBCI). It is not the intention of this blog post to explain CBCI (because I don’t feel qualified to do so). Instead, I direct your attention to the must-have latest book, Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (second edition). In a nutshell, however, a concept-based curriculum adds a third dimension to the traditional 2D curriculum model. With a 2D model, education focuses on a shallow coverage of facts and skills. The third dimension, crucial for the 21st-century, is conceptual understanding.
“Information without intellect is meaningless.”
Dr. H. Lynn Erickson, 2017
- Misconception #1: facts and skills are not important
The goal of getting our students to reach deep understandings has led some teachers to neglect critical content. On the contrary, facts and skills are fundamental; they are the foundation of understanding. Students will not be able to construct their own understandings without them.
“Understanding requires knowledge, but goes beyond it.”
Furthermore, once students have generated generalisations, they rely on specific factual examples to support them. The figures below show the Structure of Knowledge (Erickson, 1995) and the Structure of Process (Lanning, 2012). In both, the elements below concepts do indeed represent the 2D parts, but it is impossible to reach the 3D elements without them. Highly-skilled concept-based teachers consciously promote synergistic thinking between the 2D and 3D elements of units.
- Misconception #2: teachers should generate one generalisation for each unit
This misconception is particularly widespread among PYP teachers because of central ideas. For a standard unit, 6-9 generalisations are recommended (the central idea is just an overarching one).
Unit planning should start with a collaborative planning web. The book offers an in-depth outline of the process but a breakdown can also be found here. Part of this powerful process involves identifying the unit strands. The strands might be different subject disciplines or broken-down elements of the larger topic. Either way, each strand should have its own concepts and one/two generalisations.
- Misconception #3: generalisations from planners should be displayed in class
Many PYP teachers display their central ideas. This is strongly discouraged by Dr. Erickson because students should be constructing their own generalisations throughout the unit. It is powerful for students to construct their own statements of conceptual relationship. By displaying ours, we are robbing them of the thinking process. This also goes against an inquiry-based pedagogy. Click here to read a related article by Adam McGuigan. He concludes his discussion with this:
“Maybe the central idea is best kept on a planner.”
Adam McGuigan, 2013
- Misconception #4: generalisations should not include qualifiers
Like I said, teachers should generate 6-9 generalisations for each unit. Qualifiers (may, often, can, etc.) should not be used in all of them, but it is perfectly acceptable to include them in some. In fact, a qualifier is often necessary in order to make the generalisation a true statement. Consider the following central idea:
People communicate responsibly using art forms and media
This is an important idea but it is not true in all situations. Instead, we should say:
People can communicate responsibly using art forms and media
- Misconception #5: macroconcepts are more important than microconcepts
Dr. Erickson makes a distinction between microconcepts that are very specific and macroconcepts that can be transferred across different disciplines. In the PYP, our key concepts are eight examples of macroconcepts (but there are many more). Concepts like change and function can indeed offer breadth because of their transferable application and they are more likely, therefore, to be used as a conceptual lens for a unit. This has led many people to believe that they are more important. However, while macroconcepts offer breadth, we need microconcepts for depth of understanding.
- Misconception #6: CBCI is for high-ability students only
CBCI offers a new level of cognitive challenge. We want our students to think! This is important for all students, not just older students or high academic performers. With scaffolding, all students are able to reach conceptual understandings and will benefit from doing so. Generalisations should not be “dumbed down” for any particular group. As Carol Ann Tomlinson (2017) states, teachers better understand how to support their students when units are planned conceptually. Other elements of learning should be differentiated in order for students to understand the same, undifferentiated concepts.
- Misconception #7: when planning, start with the generalisations
In PYP, teachers sometimes start with the central idea and plan from there. In fact, we should be identifying the critical content that we need to teach. From there, we can work our way up Structure of Knowledge/Structure of Process in order to identify concepts and generalisations. We can’t hope to write relevant generalisations without starting from the facts and skills.
- Misconception #8: everything should be interdisciplinary
Where possible, we should be making authentic connections to other subject disciplines. Concepts help us to do this (especially macroconcepts). However, authentic connections can’t always be made and, in these situations, weak connections should not be forced. As Jennifer Wathall states, standalone planning is sometimes essential in order to maintain the integrity of each discipline.
I don’t claim to be a CBCI expert, so please leave a comment below if you feel that I have missed an important point. If you have any questions, likewise, you can ask them below and I’ll help if I can. The reflective process of blogging has once again helped me to consolidate my learning. I hope that you also found this page helpful. If you’d like to learn more, I once again draw your attention to the book. It’s one that you’ll keep referring back to!
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