How can you support your students to build strong conceptual understandings?

Learning how to create strong understandings and good questions to provoke thinking are essential components to achieving a concept-based classroom.

Strong Conceptual Understandings

Teachers construct understandings in planning, but in an inductive approach we do not share or unpack them with students. We allow them to construct and articulate them on their own. By looking at content through case study examples, connecting two or more concepts in a relationship, students can construct their own conceptual understandings. Watch this video below as Dr. Conrad Hughes, author of Understanding Prejudice and Education (2017) explains how to create a strong understandings:

Consider this example below from Marschall and French. The concepts of waste and pollution are weakly connected using the verb impacts:

Waste impacts pollution levels.

If we consider asking the question ‘why?’ or ‘how?’’ we can turn this weaker statement of understanding into a stronger statement where the relationships between the concepts are more meaningfully connected:

Reducing waste lowers pollution levels.

Building responsibility cultivates us to produce less waste.

Crafting strong understandings is helped if you follow some of the recommended tips in the diagram below. These can support you and your students to construct strong transferable understandings.

Tips to support writing strong transferable understandings

As students build stronger and deeper conceptual understandings, you might also consider recording and celebrating the development of their thinking.

Guiding Questions

A Culture of Questioning

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change (2011), argue that formulating one’s own question is the single most essential skill for learning and one that should be taught to all students.

In fact, the ability to produce questions, improve questions and prioritize questions may be one of the most important - yet too often overlooked - skills that a student can acquire in their formal education. Strong critical thinking is often grounded in the questions we ask. By deliberately teaching questioning skills, we will be facilitating a process that will help students develop a mental muscle necessary for deeper learning, creativity and innovation, analysis, and problem solving.

Concept-based learning is about getting your students to reach a higher level of thinking and creating a culture of questioning is one of the keys. What you would want to see in a concept-based classroom, is a teacher who has a tool kit of potential questions which are of different types (factual, conceptual and debatable) used to intentionally bridge the factual to conceptual levels of thinking.

As students move through different levels of learning, they are also achieving higher levels of knowledge. It is in your level of questioning that embodies the journey of students as you help them move their thinking forward from factual knowledge to conceptual understanding.

The integration of factual and conceptual should be a design goal for instruction, reflected in the guiding questions that you create and use in practice.

Connecting Questions with Understandings

Take a look at the concept-based planning slides. You will see through the examples on slide 9 how you as a teacher can strategically plan factual, conceptual and guiding questions to correspond to the conceptual understandings that you want your students to reach.

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