Concept driven learning…

Some ‘big ideas’ about concept driven learning:

(From this week’s little #pypchat on Twitter)

  • The world is changing. Knowledge is changing. The ability to view the world with a more flexible mind is invaluable. (Steve)
  • Concept based learning is about big transferable ideas that transcend time, place, situation. (Ed)
  • Content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us (Christianne)
  • Content based teaching may not get beyond information transmission/superficial learning (Gillian)
  • Concepts are a way to organize and make sense of learning. Connect disciplinary knowledge.  (Miranda)
  • We can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas. (Alexandra)
  • Concept based learning is a framework to study everything. So much information. Content can change, concepts stay the same. (Mega)
  • Information is useless unless you can do something with it. (Lynne Erickson)
Big Ideas in the classroom.

Since I no longer have my own class, I relish opportunities to get into classrooms. This week I’m team teaching in Year 5 with Rubi… and team learning. We bounce ideas before class, observe and listen to the kids and change the plan as the learning unfolds. The ‘topic’ is energy, but it’s inquiry learning and it’s concept driven. 

The first provocation is a video showing the effects of an electricity blackout. The students’ questions are quite specific to the incident, and we realize we need to change the plan already. We ask the kids to revisit their questions and ‘grow’ them, this time considering big ideas, transferable through time and place. It only takes one example from a different context to get the idea and they are away! This round of questions is about electricity and alternative power sources, not just the blackout they saw.

Rubi introduces a second provocation to further develop their thinking. She puts on music and asks the kids to dance and jump around. There is lots of noise and energetic movement, kids remove their sweaters as they warm up and a good time is had by all (except the class next door.)  We ask the kids to discuss in groups how this activity connects to the first provocation and then come up with further questions.  This round of questions is about different forms of energy, where they come from and how they are used.

Sorting Questions.

With each question on an individual sticky note, the groups sort the questions in any way they like. Before they start I ask them what they see as the purpose this activity. Mia says it will make them read everyone’s questions and think about them. Liam says it will help them organize their thoughts. Amanda says it will  help them check their understanding. Josh says they will have to justify their thinking.

Some groups sort the questions by topic, others by big ideas. One sorts them according to the PYP key concepts. Some groups sort and re-sort in different ways. Some sort them into deep and shallow questions, open and closed questions. I’ve seen Rubi encourage this this kind of thinking by having kids analyse questions through the question quadrant. They use the language: ‘That’s a closed question,’ ‘You could just google that,’ ‘ That’s too narrow, how do we make it a bigger idea’? ‘That’s just about facts, it’s not deep enough.’  We gather the questions, type the whole lot and cut them up, ready for sorting the next day.

To sum up the lesson, we ask students to give it a title. I ask what a title does and they tell me ‘It sums up what’s important,’ ‘It tells you the main idea’, ‘It tells you what it’s all about’. ‘It makes you want to know more’. Their titles fit the bill!

A conceptual central idea.

We introduce the central idea: ‘Our use of energy has an impact on the planet.’

Each group now gets the whole class’s questions and the task is to sort the pile into two groups… Those that relate to the central idea (the overarching conceptual understanding.) and those that don’t. The students are totally engaged as we move between groups and listen to the rich conversation. There is much debate and it doesn’t take long before they decide they need three groups or even four, because it isn’t as simple as that! Through the process, questions are further developed and refined.

Key concepts.

The key concepts which will be our lens for the inquiry are function ( how does it work?) and responsibility. We ask the students to get the laptops and create a quick cartoon using Toondoo to show their understanding of one of the two concepts in a clever way. Some create cartoons that connect to our central idea, others show examples that connect to their personal lives. The choice is theirs – the results are creative and thought-provoking! Back in groups, the students now pick out questions relating to each of these  key concepts….

Big ideas about the learning:

Officially, there has been no teaching yet. A few video clips, some ideas on the class blog to think about and the time described above spent provoking and developing thinking.

Yet, already…

  • Students have risen above the facts and are thinking on a conceptual level.
  • They are making connections with prior knowledge and constructing meaning for themselves.
  • They are asking and answering questions, organizing ideas and justifying their thinking.
  • The so-called ’21st century skills’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are all evident.
  • A host of other trans-disciplinary skills are being practised.
  • Curiosity has been sparked and there is excitement about taking the learning further.
  • Every single one of our school’s learning principles is evident.
Images: Responsibility by Amelia, Function by Gabi

40 thoughts on “Concept driven learning…

  1. Edna, I’m so excited by the process of learning taking place in your classes. The students are engaged, thinking and learning through discussion instead of responding to textbooks or a teacher’s directive. You say there wasn’t much teaching, and in the traditional sense there wasn’t, but these students are obviously well versed in a process of inquiry and collaborative sense making, and these transferable skills enable them to guide their own learning and understand their journey. The sceptic in me is afraid this kind of learning will not continue into secondary school, where the teacher is often the main source of information and driver of themes and questions, but then they may be fortunate to find themselves in a similar class. I hope so! Thank you for taking the time to write out the details of this class; very inspiring.


    1. Tania, thanks for the ongoing support. I suspect you are right to be skeptical about secondary school. My school has The MYP program, but I have a feeling once kids are out of primary, everyone’s focus shifts from the learning itself, to grades, curriculum, preparation for VCE… Not necessarily by choice. I’ll ask our high school Director of Teaching and Learning to respond and see what she says. (generally no-one in our high school would read my blog, I am sure!)


      1. Thanks for another great post Edna. While I can be skeptical about any real shift in secondary schooling, this is one area where there has been some progress. For instance, in History there is much discussion about first-order concepts, such as nationalism, which underpin a curriculum, and second-order concepts, such as causality, which are more central to being able to think historically. Using these concepts to undergird the entire curriculum gives learning purpose and direction. See &


    1. Thank you, Carl. And now I have discovered your blog too… Although you have not posted in a while!! Have you joined in the live #pypchat? If not, are you able to on a Thursday night 8.30 Melbourne time?


      1. As a Headteacher of an English Prep School (age 4-11 years) we have stopped using the English National Curriculum entirely and now use a new curriculum that is being used by about 100 English private schools – it is known as the Independent Curriculum. We chose it because, in many ways, it was a ‘safer’ option than going to the PYP which so few English schools seem to use but I would quietly loved to have changed our curriculum to the PYP. The IC is a step in the right direction though. Pleasgo look at it if you are interested and let me know what you think


        1. Thanks, Chris. Taking on PYP was the very best thing my school ever did. Looking at your link: At first glance, I saw not just knowledge, but learning skills and attitudes and thought your curriculum had similar beliefs to PYP… then I found the pages with content detailed out. There lies the difference. The PYP is a curriculum framework. You build your own units of inquiry based on the essential elements : knowledge, skills, attitudes, concepts and action. I wonder why few schools have adopted the PYP in the UK. In Australia, even some government schools are PYP now, because the beliefs and approach to learning are fabulous. Having said that, we do have a new Australian National Curriculum and have to comply … Although we have some flexibility as an IB school.


  2. Hi Edna- I’m going to weigh in as requested! In most classrooms, in many (not all) disciplines, through years 7-10 in our secondary school, you can see the students engaged in the same process of inquiry based and collaborative learning that focuses on addressing a significant/key/global concept. I credit the IB MYP for the way in which we have revolutionised our teaching to make it happen this way and have learned to create units of work that allow students to drive their own learning journeys. Sadly, this all gets thrown out of the window the minute we hit VCE. We tell the students that the questions and the process no longer matter, that they should just focus on getting the right answers to get the marks they need. I’m hoping that the proposed new Year 12 thesis/research project ‘subject’ that the VCAA have called an ‘Extended Investigation VCE Study Design’ will begin to bring the focus back to the right place!
    By the way Edna – I do read and love your blog 🙂


    1. Thanks for weighing in Emma. Great to hear how MYP has revolutionised teaching and learning in many classes. Such a shame that the pressure to get high marks is what drives teaching (not sure if I can call it learning in the deep sense of the word) at the top end of the school. This “We tell the students that the questions and the process no longer matter, that they should just focus on getting the right answers to get the marks they need” is absolutely tragic!


  3. Thank you for sharing the process of your initial lesson. It has made me realize that I have much to learn regarding inquiry/concept based learning & teaching! We have actually left the MYP program (for several reasons) but are still focussing on inquiry. Your post has given me food for thought – and the knowledge that we need some decent PD in this area. Thanks again Edna for challenging my thinking.


    1. Pam, we are learning, as we go along, about inquiry and concept driven learning. My favourite thinking routine from Project Zero is “I used to think… Now I think”. It allows for growth and change, without having to say we were wrong. We are simply developing our understandings. Have you read Kathy Short of Inquiry as a stance? Will send you the article if you haven’t. Good to share with staff.


  4. Thank you, Edna, for an inspirational post about concept based learning. The most meaningful and worthwhile learning often happens when the teaching – and teacher – isn’t visible and that seems to have happened here! I think that concept based learning allows children to make connections with things of meaning and importance to them in a way that content based learning could never do; and then the children end up wanting to and being able to teach each other with each inquiry leading to another but not in a linear way. So they still ‘get’ the content but it’s relevant content which becomes memorable. Concept based learning switches students on to learning, whereas content focused learning disengages them – how can you be engaged in something if you can’t see its relevance to your own life? Concept based learning puts students right in the centre of their learning, which is where they should be … then they go to secondary school and the teacher takes centre stage again. Very sad!


    1. Thanks, Mary. It’s one of the more difficult parts of the PYP for teachers to get their heads around when they are still concerned about the content specific requirements of National Curriculum. Yes, it’s very sad that secondary school often looks that way. That’s what needs to change!


  5. How might you apply the content of Shakespeare (or any other poet/playwright) to the idea of teaching concepts?


  6. Being fairly new to Inquiry based learning, I love all the details you provided here. I can see myself using them for my next unit with Year 11s (the class I’ve been blogging about doing Inquiry with). I’ll even get to teach them paper (post-it)-based brainstorming. They’re not that good at asking questions yet but they are learning. I think it’s the most important thing I’m teaching them. That, and self-reflection.

    The tricky thing is to find a good provocation – or focus question – just to get them going.

    Thanks for sharing this experience.


    1. Hi Malyn,
      I think you are right about a good hook to get them in. If the focus question just cones from you, though, they don’t own it. It might help to provide a provocative scenario, video, image or other stimulus that really engages them and gets them thinking and wanting to ask questions.


      1. Thanks Edna. The focus question is really more a ‘context’ – provides scope rather than definite directions. It’s been acting as the ‘hook’ as well but I’m definitely going to try the approach outline above – even just for part of a lesson – to get the hang of it…for bigger units/topics.

        cheers. 🙂


  7. Excellent example of problem-based learning. Starting off with a problematic situation–what you’ve called a provocation–that stimulates students’ curiosities and will lead to what IB calls “purposeful investigations.” Along the way students have classified, organized their inquiries and generated transcendent concepts. Classification happens to be a most productive learning experience, leading, as it does, to cognitive development.
    Unfortunate that, for some, this authentic learning process will be put aside in order to get the right answer on what I assume (from US) are standardized tests. But that’s more or less the story in many places, though not all.
    Must align curricular goals at national levels with value, practicality and common sense of this inquiry-oriented approach based on authentic problems to analyze and learn from.
    One can also ask “How do we know our students are getting better at questioning, organizing, investigating, problem solving and thinking critically about information?”
    This is a wonderful example of what education can be across the planet–posing and resolving authentic problems.
    See also how ePals deals with this kind of investigation.
    John Barell


  8. This is the stuff I could only dream about 30 years ago and now it is happening. Best of all I see one of my Middle School teachers has seen this and commented, so what you are doing is getting out to others who will implement! I was born 30 years too early and wrote The Falconer 10 years before its time! Thanks for sharing.


    1. I used some on your ideas and ended up with the best tuning in ever in 10 years of teaching PYP!
      Thanks for the ideas and inspiration.


  9. Thank you for such a thought provoking article. I am trying to get my head around conceptual thinking/understanding and this has helped me so much. I have since shared it with my team and it changed the way we thought and the way we approached our planning. I’m really looking forward to starting our next UOI in a new light and with a fresh approach.


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