What is a concept?


Concepts are mental constructs which help us make sense of the world. If you are a teacher who wants to deepen conceptual learning in your classroom, the first step we need to take is to define exactly what a concept is...and is not. Many curricula teach themes, however, these are different to concepts.
(Nicholas Austin, 2018)
A concept is a ‘mental construct drawn from a topic or a process that transfers to new situations or contexts’ (Erickson, Lanning and French, 2017). Carla Marschall, co-author of Concept-based Inquiry (Marschall and French, 2018), articulates what is a concept in this short video:

Concept-based learning is based on the following characteristics:


Concepts remain constant through time. Even though factual examples of a concept can be found, the concept transcends individual situations. An example from the age 5-7 level is the example of change. When students understand that change is inevitable, they can take that understanding and apply it across different stages in their learning. For example, a six year old may understand that people and animals grow and change over time, while a ten year old may begin to recognize that relationships change over time.


Abstract concepts stimulate higher level thinking. They rise above the fact base to foster a deeper understanding. Many curricula for younger grades will use ‘apples’ as a concept. As a concept, this falls short of providing children with a big idea that will help them process their world. This is due to its specificity as concepts are not locked to specific things. ‘Moving beyond the page’, on the other hand, uses concepts such as interdependence, cycles or relationships to help students organize and categorize information so they can make sense of the world and transfer it to new contexts.


Universal truths are those that can be applied across many different fields of knowledge. This is crucial in order for students to draw connections among different areas of their life. With these big ideas, students are able to view the world through different lenses and are able to learn how ideas and situations are related.

Topics Vs Concepts

An important distinction to note is the difference between the topics that our curriculum mandates we include in our instruction, and the concepts that help connect the set of knowledge and skills to students’ lives. According to Lynn Erickson, concepts are universal, timeless, abstract and move us towards higher levels of thinking. In this table extract below, you can see the topic as the unit title on the left and the concepts on the right.
(Marschall & French, 2018)

Macroconcepts Vs Microconcepts

Another note of importance is that concepts are different in their complexity levels and in the extent to which they enable transfer of understanding. Erickson, Lanning, Marschall and French talk about concepts like nesting russian dolls. Micro concepts nest within macroconcepts. The higher you go in the hierarchy the more transferable the concept. Macro-concepts aim to provide breadth, whereas, microconcepts provide disciplinary depth.
If you look at the table above once again, in bold italics you see the macro concept which provides a conceptual lens bringing curriculum breadth, and the other driving nesting concepts provide curriculum depth. See further examples of nesting concepts below.
(Marschall & French, 2018)