Rationale for a Concept-Based Curriculum
Concept-based curriculum is organised around big ideas and essential points of understanding about those big ideas, rather than around more discrete topics and facts (Erickson, 2007). Ideally, concept-based curriculum promotes authentic learning and understanding, because it is linked to the ways that we make sense of information and communicate it to one another—through processes of classification, association, and evaluation of how what we know may or may not apply or fit within different contexts. Wiggins and McTighe (1998) recommended that curriculum focuses around ideas, topics, or processes that (a) represent a “big idea” with enduring value beyond the classroom, (b) reside at the heart of the discipline, (c) require explication, and (d) offer potential for engaging students. Concept-based curriculum encourages learners to focus on constructing meaning from the world around them and from the information they confront by relating new information to what they already know, thereby reexamining and reorganising the structures of their understanding.
As Jonassen (2006) noted, “By partitioning the world into classes, concepts decrease the amount of information that we must learn, remember, communicate, and reason about” (p. 178). Therefore, within a concept-focused structure, the attention can be given to reasoning and meaning-making rather than to what Brophy and Alleman (2006) called a “parade of facts” (p. 449). In an era defined by information overload with limited regulation of quality, it is more urgent than ever that students develop stronger understandings that allow them to organise facts and analyse them within larger conceptual contexts.
Concepts are both individually and socially constructed. As individuals, we develop concepts and conceptual understandings to organise the huge amount of information we perceive around us; learning involves the establishment of conceptual understandings based on experiences of the world (Seiger-Ehrenberg, 2001). Within groups, including cultures, societies, and disciplines, we organise concepts and conceptual understandings within the context of the values and interests of the group, testing and evaluating to build stronger bases for shared understandings. Such shared understandings, with testing and evaluation over time, become the fundamental generalisations and principles of a discipline and therefore important tools for learners within each major subject area. Partington and Buckingham (2012), exploring several different students’ ways of developing and refining their conceptual understanding in media studies, applied Vygotsky’s (1962) notion of “spontaneous concepts” and “scientific concepts” to distinguish between those that learners might hypothesise as part of the learning process and those that have been defined as critical to study within particular disciplines. Through concept-based curriculum, we guide students in developing and examining both kinds of understanding, addressing misconceptions within the process.
Erickson (2007) highlighted the many skills involved with conceptual thinking, including aspects of seeing patterns and relationships, evaluating understandings based on supportive evidence, and transferring conceptual understanding, sometimes in the effort to solve a problem or create a new product. She stated that “there will not be a significant improvement in education until teachers understand the importance of concepts and conceptual understanding to intellectual development, deeper understanding, and motivation for learning” (p. 78). Student engagement with concepts and conceptual understandings through the curriculum should include emphasis on the properties that make something a member of a conceptual category or exclude it, the characteristics that make something an exemplar or prototype of a concept, and the ways that conceptual understandings guide our interpretation of the topics and facts in the subject area (Gallagher, 2012; Seiger-Ehrenberg, 2001; Taba, 1962). Such examination also promotes closer examination of those understandings themselves and their use as tools for understanding rather than facts set in stone; it is the examination, application, and refinement of conceptual understandings that contribute to deeper learning, not an unquestioning acceptance of the understandings as immovable statements (Jonassen, 2006; Milligan & Wood, 2010).
Research on how people learn has emphasised the connections between concept learning and metacognition (National Research National Research Council, 2000). Learners construct new understandings based on their current knowledge, and in order for teachers to assess misconceptions in student understanding, they must “make students’ thinking visible and find ways to help them reconceptualise” erroneous understandings (National Research Council, p. 71). For example, Coll, France, and Taylor (2005), discussing the role of models and analogies in science education, suggested that in order for students to develop conceptual understandings accurately and comprehensively, they need to be able to reflect on and discuss these understandings as they are in the process of developing them. Similarly, Barton and Levstik (2004) emphasised the importance of encouraging students to express their understandings of key ideas in history, highlighting several types of misconceptions likely to develop unnoticed by teachers unless students were given opportunities to share their understanding in their own words.
Beyond the general benefits that concept-based curriculum can provide in the classroom, it also has potential to be supportive of learners with a wide range of needs. Erickson (2007) noted that teachers who fail to structure the curriculum around concepts and essential understandings tend to differentiate by varying the quantity and not the quality of expectations for student work, whereas a concept focus provides richer differentiation opportunities. Educators who specialise in working with culturally and linguistically diverse learners have noted that a focus on meaning-making and the use of concepts as key organisers of curriculum allow students to access and interpret key understandings, despite the limits that might be presented by language differences (Twyman, Ketterlin-Geller, McCoy, & Tindal, 2003). In special education, again educators have emphasised the importance of focusing on scaffolding and making meaning, using graphic organisers and other approaches to emphasise meaning and connection (McCoy & Ketterlin-Geller, 2004). Educators who focus on advanced learners also emphasise the value of concept-based curriculum and its potential to increase the depth, complexity, and challenge of the curriculum for advanced learners (Kaplan, 2009; VanTassel-Baska, 1994, 2011; Ward, 1981). Many resources targeting the needs of gifted learners are organised with a concept focus, and curricular specialists in gifted education emphasise the value of the complex thinking and abstract reasoning involved in deep conceptual understanding. In addition, concept-based curriculum offers both an advanced focus within particular disciplines and advanced interdisciplinary connections that encourage systematic exploration of the world with particular conceptual lenses from different disciplinary stances.