Students learn better in context, and they take what they are learning more seriously when they can clearly see the value in the skill you are teaching. One way to help students value individual skills is to connect them to real-life experiences, problems, or topics. While concept-based learning is not a new strategy, it is hard to put into practice without intentional planning. So, how can you go about this process for your school or even an individual classroom?
The first step is to map out the major concepts you will be teaching in each of the subject areas. Yes, this is a BIG task, but it is worth it. During this stage of planning, my office is often buried under post-it notes and scribbled messages. It looks like a disaster at first, but magic comes from the process.
Once I have all the big topics in each subject area, I begin to look for patterns. For example, I am teaching fractions in math, parts of government in social studies, cells in science, and parts of speech in English. Each of these areas of study is focused on the smaller parts that make up a larger picture. This gives me a basis for an overarching concept of whole-part relationships or thinking, which I can call “Break It Down Now.” If it is culturally appropriate, I may introduce this concept with clips of break dancing or maybe sounds and images of things breaking apart. By using these fun introductory images and sounds, I make an impact and start to solidify the pattern for students.
Once I have an overarching concept set and I determine which of my standards will fit into that unit, I can begin to think of larger questions that will tie the unit together. These questions will fall across the content areas and will be broad. They are intended to be higher order thinking questions that draw students into conversation and making connections. This is often a beautiful place to integrate faith into your teaching if you are able. For example, a question like “How did God create the world around us as a whole and as units?” or “Does broken apart mean destroyed?” would relate well to the “Break It Down Now” unit above. These are just a few of the larger questions you could ask. They can be tied to any subject area. Individual areas will also have questions tied to specific content standards.
Another critical element is to determine the best learning methods. In a traditional sense we often have a math class, science class, English class, etc. each day, and we see them as individual units. Concept-based learning requires much more overlap in subject areas. In the upper grades, it will require time for teamwork among staff members, as each teacher in a learning team will have to determine their role in the learning.
The final piece is assessment. Concept-based learning often requires project-based assessment. It needs to demonstrate not only memorization of facts and figures, but also a student’s application of knowledge to the world around them. If I am talking about the above concept of whole-part relationships (“Break It Down Now”), I may have a final project that involves graphic organizers of part and whole. This could be done with the government, fractions, cells and sentence diagramming. When these graphic organizers are placed side-by-side, we see a pattern. It could also be interdisciplinary, if you focus on what fraction of a sentence is adjectives, or what fraction of the government is local versus federal. Students could write a properly diagrammed sentence about cells and their parts.
If you want to start heading down the road of concept-based interdisciplinary units, start small. Try your hand at a simple unit and then, as you learn, take on more. This is not a strategy that has to be used all at once; it can be grown and developed with time. Once you have done the hard work of the weeks and months of planning and aligning, the fun can begin. In the end, find a way to celebrate the students’ learning and give them a chance to share their new knowledge with others.
It is a lot of work, but a concept-based unit is an enjoyable way to teach and learn. It provides opportunity for learning that is applicable to local needs and culture. It takes boring distant textbooks and brings the material home. It gets a child to begin thinking “outside the box” of conventional subject areas, opening the world of creativity, critical thinking, and application of skills. Instead of hating math class but loving English, they may begin to see a connection between the two. It gets them excited and helps your community see how a change in method can have a big impact on student motivation and learning.
Director, Arbor Christian Academy