Eight misconceptions about concept-based curriculum and instruction

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.

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Image by @JenniferWathall

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.”

Ron Ritchhart

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.

Image by Corwin Connect
  • 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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  1. This is useful for helping me to narrow down my central ideas. The inclusion of ‘can’ makes my ideas more open. Will share with colleagues!

    1. Hi Katie,

      I’m pleased that you found this post useful. Thank you for sharing this with your colleagues. The inclusion of ‘can’ in a generalisation is sometimes necessary in order to make the statement true. When you and your students generate multiple generalisations throughout the unit, they shouldn’t all include qualifiers but they are perfectly fine for some. It’s something to be aware of rather than something to disallow completely.

      We can discuss CBCI next time we meet up. I learnt loads from this PD and things have started to fall into place.



  2. Hi Adam,

    I was just thinking that the reason why most people display the central idea could be because the planner asks you to plan a summative task to show the students’ understanding of it. In this way we’re expected to ask students to meet the same expected understanding, which makes it hard for them to own the inquiry, but keeps them on the same trajectory. As you mention, the understanding can still be achieved by using concepts to trigger prior knowledge and make connections.
    I agree that we shouldn’t give them too much because they can’t construct much knowledge if the main idea is presented to them on a plate straight away.
    Thanks for the very helpful and thought provoking post.

    1. Hi Westley,

      Good points! It is important for teachers to keep the central idea in mind and to ensure that learning engagements and inquiries will deepen students’ understanding of it. This, as you say, will keep students on the intended trajectory even if we don’t share the central idea. Students’ generalisations will probably be related to our central idea (and maybe much better). If teachers feel it’s necessary to share it still, it can be towards the end of the unit so that it doesn’t rob the students of the thinking. Perhaps this is the best option. What do you think?

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and continuing the discussion. I’m pleased that you found value in this blog post.

      Happy new year!


  3. Hi Adam,
    Thank you so much for sharing some of the wide misconceptions teachers may hold about CBL. I’ve recently undertaken the Concept-based Learning PYP workshop at my school and I’m still ‘digesting’ the amount of valuable information that shared. As a PYP-EY teacher, there are times when I feel that there are many dots still waiting to be connected: neuroscience; inquiry; concepts; etc. But I guess that’s the fun in it – you just take one step at-a-time. I believe that’s what lifelong learning should look like for a teacher or shall I say, facilitator, partner, researcher!


    1. Hi Cat,

      I agree! The more we learn, the more we realise how much we don’t know! As you say, one step at a time and just keep learning! Dr. Erickson repeatedly said that we should just take it one step at a time and implement one new thing at a time. It’s too much to take in all at once! Thanks for your comment!



  4. Asides from being envious, this was great. Misconception #3 hit close to home. Every PYP school I taught in, displayed the central idea. In one school, we even had our display board with not just the CI, but also the lines of inquiry, the profile, attributes, form and function.
    In the MYP, I’ve noticed we often post the Statement of Inquiry.

    1. Hi Tima,

      Thanks for your comment. Number three is the one that is getting the most attention from this post. Does IB say anywhere that we have to display these things? I’m not aware that it does (please correct me if I’m wrong). Yet, as you mention, it’s a widespread practice.



  5. First of all, Lucky you to havenattended this workshop!! Number 3 resonated with me… As a pyp teacher I have often felt that posting the central idea tells the students what we really want them to generate themselves with the proper scaffolding and guidance. When I voiced this at my school, I was told that good central ideas don’t tell the students. I disagreed but went back and took a look at central ideas and questioned my own feelings. So reassuring to know that I was grounded in my thinking. Thank you!

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Rest assured that Lynn Erickson strongly agrees with you and would strongly disagree with your colleagues. Central ideas restrict students to our generalisation and stop them from constructing their own. This process of identifying and articulating conceptual relationships is highly valuable. We shouldn’t be doing it for them. Read the article (in number 3) by Adam McGuigan that discusses this. Very interesting!

      Thanks for your feedback!


  6. I clapped my hands, stood up and marched the length of the room and back when I read #3. Thank you! That is really freeing and powerful for me. I struggle to get the class to the “one’ central idea via the curriculum with varying degrees of success. That is so very liberating! Thank you!

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m picturing you clapping and marching and it makes all of my blogging efforts worthwhile. Thank you! Haha!

      Students should construct their own generalisations throughout the unit and, oftentimes, theirs are better than ours! You might consider sharing the central idea at the end of the unit but this is by no means the only worthwhile generalisation. Read the article by Adam McGuigan that is linked in number 3. It’s an interesting discussion.



  7. Great summary of the misconceptions of concepts (wow, that’s a lot of concepts in one sentence). I was just curious about the ‘ten’ examples of macroconcepts in PYP. There’s only 8 key concepts in PYP, or were you meaning something else?

    1. Hi Claire,

      Thank you for the feedback and thanks for highlighting my mistake. I told you it was an intense weekend! Apparently, my brain needs some relaxation time! Yes, we have eight key concepts in the PYP (I have changed this in the article now). Still, there are countless other macroconcepts.

      Thanks again!


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