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A concept-driven learning

Shannon O'Dwyer2

Shannon O’Dwyer, Language Coordinator and Optimal Learning Teacher at Beijing BISS International School

This post is an excerpt from a post entitled “Don’t lock me into 8 key concepts” by Shannon O’Dwyer. The full post explains concepts in a nutshell and why concept-driven teaching is both easy and hard. This excerpt provides an insight into how teachers can make it happen.

Concepts in a Nutshell

Concepts are over-arching mental constructs that students need to make sense of the content we teach. Conceptual understanding enables students to apply facts and skills to the world around them. By starting with concepts, we create a curriculum that’s worthy of our students’ time and effort. The concepts that drive the PYP are timeless (factual examples change, but not the core understanding), universal (so students can apply understandings across cultures, situations and disciplines) and abstract (so students engage in higher order thinking to grapple with central ideas).

By helping students achieve conceptual understanding, we ensure that they can take facts and skills, and do something with them beyond this moment, this lesson and this classroom. I have seen plenty of students who can accurately convert between metres & centimetres but are unable to choose an appropriate length of skipping rope for a 3-person playground game. These students had mastered a mathematical skill in isolation, but not yet developed a conceptual understanding of length.

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Why concept-driven teaching is hard

It’s just so messy. Concept-driven learning is an iterative process of constantly pulling apart ideas, putting them back together, re-applying them to different situations, finding ways to correct misconceptions and enabling each child to make meaning in their own way. It would be a lot easier to say, “Here’s what you need to know, practise that, now you get a sticker.”  The problem is that you’d have to add, “Good luck applying that to your life”. Factual knowledge is easy to teach because it is simple, procedural and locked in situ. But unless your students intend to live forever in their 4th Grade classroom, that knowledge is utterly useless to them.

“How can I make it happen?”

Use teacher and student questions as a springboard for deep, conceptual dialogue. Sort, unpack and challenge students’ questions. Discuss open vs. closed questions, abstract vs. concrete questions, fat vs. thin questions (ie 1 answer or many). Keep asking probing questions (such as How do you know..?/reflection) to prevent shallow understanding.

Problematic Knowledge
Design resources and situations that are problematic. Perhaps the facts do not add up, or there are pieces of information missing. This challenges students to search for connections, inferences and transference to make sense of the inquiry. Anything that is non-linear, with multiple solutions and multiple interpretations helps our students build the flexibility of thinking to grapple with complexity, change and abstraction.

Every day! Make sure you devote enough time for students to actually do the learning and construct the understanding. They need ample time for wondering, trying, tinkering, playing, researching and coming to conclusions. Don’t step away. Be a participant who says, “Why did you…?”, “What would happen if…?”

Work with single-subject teachers to develop integrated thinking. Students should take their understandings from class to class, exploring concepts through different content and perspectives (eg symphony orchestras and bus timetables both build an understanding of systems). Try to  keep  concepts at the core of your planning meetings, to avoid creating shallow, thematic units. Avoid throwing together “linked activities”. If the students are studying Ancient Greece, don’t immediately say, “Let’s make pots!”. Perhaps the most important concept is “legacies” and students investigate the influence of the golden ratio on both Art and Mathematics. While studying natural disasters, let students make paper mache volcanoes at home. In class, explore the concept of “impact” on geography, individual lives and communities. How do artists help communities remember and heal after a natural disaster?”

To read the full post, visit Shannon’s blog here.

Shannon is a PYP educator, whose passions include curriculum design, literacy and ESOL practices, enrichment and technology integration. Shannon loves working in PYP classrooms, where each day is filled with the questions, problems and discoveries of young minds. She blogs at and tweets @S_ODwyer.

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3 Responses to A concept-driven learning

  1. Mario Arana 18 April 2014 at 9:32 am #

    I agree with your insights but I struggle applying them to teaching PYP Spanish as an Additional Language. Any thoughts on how “concept driven” learning occurs when students do not have the skills to converse about them? Thanks!

  2. Nicole Carvalho 1 October 2018 at 11:15 pm #

    I’m not a language teacher, so I’m not sure, but here is a suggestion: Use concepts to organize your vocabulary.

    Do a concept based unit on LOVE or TRAVEL or FAMILY or IDENTITY …. teach the vocabulary accordingly but discuss where and when and how to use the language in different situations….

  3. Mabel 21 October 2022 at 8:20 pm #

    What about music when you see the kids once a week?

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