What is Concept-based Learning?

A Model for Concept-based Learning

In this guide, as mentioned, you will be digging into the work of H. Lynn Erickson and L. Lanning around Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction. Their work discusses concept-based learning from the perspective of Understanding by Design (UbD) and we will largely focus on concept-based learning from that lens.

Synergistic Thinking

Erickson and Lanning’s approach to curriculum design is all about developing the students ability to think well. Erickson affirms that the ‘key to intellectual development is synergistic interplay between factual and conceptual level of thinking’ (2012). So if synergy refers to an interaction where the sum effect is greater than the acting agent alone, in a concept-based curriculum students acquire and process facts and skills through the conceptual level of thinking. Synergistic thinking is the key to concept-based learning.

The Three-Dimensions

Erickson’s concept-based teaching and learning model contrasts to more traditional models, which can be more surface level, with stronger emphasis on rote memorization of facts and concepts rather than their application.

In a more traditional classroom, a teacher may teach a specific war by focusing on key facts and individuals, and require students to write a paper and take a test to demonstrate understanding.

Conversely, a concept-based approach is three-dimensional that melds what students will know, do and understand demonstrated in their ability to transfer to new contexts and situations. For example, in a Social Studies unit concept-based learning extends the content and skills so that:

  • Students will identify the axis allied power in order to understand how 20th century conflict continues to politically and economically impact us today.

  • Students will compare and contrast the environmental characteristics of the United States in order to understand the environmental impact human can reap.

The diagram (above left) illustrates how traditional teaching focuses primarily on content and skills, whereas, with a concept-based model (above right) we teach in light of an overarching concept - understandings are generated by the process of deconstruction, reorganisation and reconstruction of content.

The Structure of Knowledge and The Structure of Process

The illustration below highlights the key components of Erickson’s concept-based model which can support transfer to occur at the conceptual level of understanding in both the Structure of Knowledge and the Structure of Process.

The structure of knowledge more naturally depicts elements of subject areas, such as Science or History, that are heavy in content knowledge (topics and facts). Whereas, the structure of process more naturally depicts the elements of subject areas, such as Languages or Arts, that are organized by processes, strategies, and skills.

In both the structure of knowledge and structure of process, curriculum and instruction moves from the lower cognitive levels (facts, skills) to the higher cognitive level of transferable understanding (generalizations). Synergy will be at work and integrated thinking will be alive.

A Note on Concept-based Learning and Other Pedagogies

Erickson’s and Lanning’s model of concept-based learning provides a model for unit design and development as we will see later, but it is important to note that concept-based curriculum also melds well with other pedagogies.

Concept-based learning can be reflected across different approaches to curriculum so long as the curriculum aims to drive students to higher order thinking that grows year to year and is transferable across subject areas. For example, Montessori is student driven where conceptual classrooms or unit themes encourage students to relate their work back to it. In systems such as IGCSE and AS/A levels, concept based learning can improve student cognition of aims and assessment objectives by giving students real-life application and higher level understanding. In an IB context, students connect statements of inquiry to key concepts and overarching themes.

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