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Leveraging conceptual based learning

By Adrian von Wrede-Jervis

In the first of a two-part series for teachers of the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), I’m looking at the function of key concepts and global contexts in the MYP. I also explore two potential strategies for supporting interdisciplinary understanding.

Setting the scene

When students graduate from our schools, they enter a future in which there will be a huge array of challenges, many at a global level. Each of these challenges is interconnected and combinatorial; they will lead us to a complex set of possible opportunities and problems. To work through these challenges requires students to think conceptually.

The power of conceptual-based learning

“Concepts help to integrate learning, add coherence to the curriculum, deepen disciplinary understanding, build the capacity to engage with complex ideas, and allow transfer of learning to new contexts.” (MYP Principals into Practice, p13, MYP educators can find it in the Programme Resource Centre)

From the statement above we see that concepts are designed to both deepen understanding within a subject and transfer understanding across subjects. They accomplish this through the combined use of large scale (macro) concepts and small scale (micro) concepts. The MYP refers to these as key and related concepts.

Key concepts in the MYP are designed to allow for common points of discussion, across the disciplinary spectrum. Related concepts are chosen to be more disciplinary specific and to support the deepening of understanding within the subject. Used together they allow for the development of understandings that transcend the context and facts specific to the situation being studied.

MYP global contexts

As one of our MYP students noted in a recent school survey: “If two units in two different subjects are connected with the same key concept, it enhances the student’s learning in both subjects as […] it might improve the students ability to make appropriate connections […] and to think outside the box – both critically/analytically and creatively.”

Building conceptual understanding through questions

An easy mistake to make when planning a unit is to merely connect the learning in the unit to a word in the key concept list and assume that conceptual learning is happening. Words themselves do not form concepts – questions do. Explorations lead to answers, it is the thematic elements of these answers from which concepts arise. So, when planning a unit try to identify what questions it raises and then identify the concepts that address these.

For example, by asking grade 9 science students to write down the questions they had regarding change, in a unit on energy production, expanded the focus of learning beyond the energy changes in the process (my original focus) to the impacts and changes on humankind and the planet (the student’s real concerns).

The interdependence of concepts and global contexts

Clear usage of the global contexts supports conceptual understandings at a transdisciplinary level. One of the ways schools can leverage an understanding of how the global context supports inquiry and the development of concepts is to convert the key aspects of each global context into questions. Each question is accessible by all subjects (making the exploration immediately transdisciplinary and at the same time helping students to make connections across subjects) and is best answered using concepts.

For example, all units exploring the global context “Identities and relationships” can explore the following common questions:

  • Can we identify the beliefs and values that describe what it means to be human?
  • What constitutes the personal ‘me’ – physically, mentally, socially and spiritually?
  • What rights and responsibilities do we have towards our own, and other, communities and cultures?

This allows students to see the different perspectives that various disciplines bring to these questions, e.g. whilst teaching about the atom I like to ask students if they consider that this defines them, as this is apparently all they are made of – it leads to some very engaged discussions and an opportunity to hear what they have been thinking about in other subjects.

Subjects can explore these common questions using a range of key concepts including, but not limited to, identity, culture, relationships, communities, cultures and systems. This way students see how subjects address some of the most universal questions that face us as a humanity. This is essential for their (and our) future.


Adrian von Wrede-Jervis is a Director of Continuum Learning in the Senior Leadership Team at Haimhausen Campus in Bavarian International School e.V., Germany

He is happy to be contacted via email (a.vwjervis@bis-school.com) or on LinkedIn.

  • Carl

    Concerned that this lacks reference to any research on transfer. If the author had read some he would be more cautious about making these bold claims

  • Sara Croucher

    Incorporating the students’ real concerns about change within the context of your unit probably made it much more meaningful and engaging for them, thus more powerful in terms of their learning.

    Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to part 2.

  • Adrian vWJ

    Hi Carl. Thanks for the comment but you need to help me out here. The bold claim is that key concepts work to support transfer (and that is not my bold claim that is the IB’s – Yes I believe them) and that the global contexts can help them also. What research do you have that undermines this?

  • Adrian vWJ

    Yes Sarah. I believe key concepts are more powerful when they connect to the mind of a student than just the planner of the unit. T for me is the basis of Inquiry!