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Concept-based learning for today’s students

By Sebastien Barnard

What’s the big idea? Concept-driven, inquiry-based learning

Everyone talks about concept-driven, inquiry-based learning, but what does it look like in practice? What does the curriculum look like and what requirements can we imagine that might lead to the desired outcomes? How do we overcome the tyranny of content-driven classrooms and examinations? Contemporary curriculum experts agree that conceptual understanding is key for student success in school, jobs, and life. iStock_000011593854_Double


A concept-driven, inquiry-based education, like the IB programmes, centres on learners. The IB programmes promote open communication based on understanding and respect and encourage students to become active, compassionate, lifelong learners. This type of education is holistic in nature, with the whole person in mind, concerned with cognitive development, along with concern for social, emotional and physical well-being.


A concept-driven education develops effective approaches to teaching and learning; empowering young people for a lifetime of learning, independently and in collaboration with others and preparing a community of learners that engage with global challenges through inquiry, action, and reflection. An IB education, for example, aims to develop a range of competencies and dispositions that include skills for thinking, working with others, communicating, managing self, and research.


At its heart, this type of education should work within global contexts. Students increase their understanding of language and culture (multilingualism and intercultural understanding) and encourage global and local engagement, including developmentally-appropriate aspects of challenges in the environment, development, conflict, rights, cooperation, and governance.


This type of education also explores significant content and provides opportunities to develop both disciplinary and interdisciplinary understanding. It offers curriculum frameworks and courses that are broad and balanced, conceptual and connected, and, finally, rigorously assessed. Working together, these four characteristics define a concept-driven, inquiry-based education like the four age-appropriate IB programmes – Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP) and the Career-related Programme (CP). It takes all of these dimensions working together to create a solid education.

How is it possible to put topics such as bullying, sex education and school rules within a conceptual framework? Bladins International School introduced a unique Social Emotional Learning curriculum in August 2015. The table below outlines the authentic connections that they made between social and emotional learning topics and bigger, conceptual ideas.

Information Table

Concept-driven curriculum

KNOW AND DO vs. KNOW AND DO AND UNDERSTAND. We too often assume that if students knew and did, they would understand. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Conceptual understanding adds a depth-dimension to students’ educational experience.

MYP-Stock-35In practical terms, educational frameworks like the IB’s MYP establishes a common core of big ideas that matter. These KEY CONCEPTS form the heart of a connected curriculum. They come from and are shared across academic disciplines. They unify students’ academic experience and provide teachers with a common vocabulary. Concepts create a culture of thinking that invites students to see connections, contradictions, alternative perspectives, and different ways of thinking. At a time when adolescents are beginning to move into more sophisticated modes of abstract thinking, concepts offer students something consistent to think about over time and across subjects. Concepts are not single words, but complex ideas that can shape teaching and learning. Examples such as identity, logic, perspective, relationship and systems can run through a typical student’s school week. Imagine how teachers of different disciplines might be able to use these big ideas as stepping stones, ladders or bridges to the facts, concepts and debates that they want students to uncover and explore. In addition to these big overarching ideas, concept-driven education, like the MYP, structures the curriculum with discipline-specific RELATED concepts that provide depth and focus. They narrow the scope of inquiry, while leaving enough room to integrate a wide range of content that is appropriate or required in local or national contexts. Related concepts invite teachers and students to go beyond studying facts to thinking about what those facts mean and why they are relevant. IBAEM-MYP-InternationalSchoolTheHague-43 This is an important feature of concept-driven education. Teaching and learning need to reflect both how knowledge is structured in the real world and how we learn. These days, facts are easily and inexpensively ‘knowable’. However, they often remain distinct and without any connection to each other, except through the strategy of grouping them into topics. This is where most educational systems stop. A concept-based education goes on to ask, what do these facts mean? How are they related? To which ideas do they give us entry? We know that students learn by taking what they know and then building on it. We know that the holy grail of education—the ability to transfer understanding from one experience or domain to another—is facilitated by discussions around concepts. We have cellular evidence that we build memories by making connections and building rich networks of associations and multiple pathways for access. Concepts help this happen; they are the superhighways of learning. This is not simply a middle school phenomenon, either. Advanced academic programmes like the IB Diploma are headed in this direction. Instead of prescribed content, complex options and stipulated factual knowledge focus on thinking, connecting, and building. Concepts are what makes that possible.

Abenaa Uttenhal, an MYP year 2 advisor teacher at Bladins International School reflects, “When we teach the mentor curriculum through concepts, students can more clearly see the connections to their every day life – they get it! The discussions we have in class make us think about ourselves. It makes us realise who we are in the world. We are important in the world but we are not the only ones in it. Teaching SEL through concepts helps it to make sense to the students, it makes learning relevant and makes students see ‘this matters to me’.”

MYP-Stock-55Inquiry-based learning

Concepts change the way that teachers teach, and students learn. They inflect the nature of classroom assignments and assessment, (formal and informal). For example, an MYP history teacher may choose for their class to study European origins instead of presenting a lecture about northern European civilization in the last Ice Age. By doing so, the teacher can create an opportunity for students to develop their inquiry into important ideas about the relationship between space, place and time, and what material culture suggests about society and identity. Concept-driven education facilitates classroom discussion that will focus on how things are the same and how they are different; also, how what we know about the past, for example, can help us to understand the present. Concept-driven education helps students develop structured inquiry into big ideas that matter and then help them assess how much they really understand through a rich and varied programme of assessment—some of it potentially highly digital—that allows a flexible choice of content that supports conceptual learning, or that is compatible with national curriculum. These are 21st-Century requirements for teachers engaged with future students being born now who will probably live into the 22nd century.

Sebastien Barnard is the Communications and Marketing Manager for the IB in Asia Pacific. He based his post on presentations by Robert Harrison, (@Robert_ibmyp), IB Head of MYP Development.