A few years ago, my colleague Dave made these amazing stickers to help the concept-based model “stick” in teachers’ brains. They were oh-so-simple, but oh-so-effective. We had read chapters and chapters on concept-based curriculum and instruction (thanks, Erickson), the research that points to the need for conceptual frameworks (thanks, National Research Council) and tons of discipline specific stuff about the fundamental and powerful concepts that underpin mathematics, science, history, language arts, etc. It was complex! But he managed to capture the essence of what we were finding in two little words:
In these two words, his stickers summed up the most important principles of concept-based instruction, and helped teachers avoid the two most common pitfalls.
Concept-based instruction starts with uncoverage. If you’re a UbD fan, you know that we stole that term from Wiggins and McTighe . What does it mean? It means that instead of the teacher “covering” the content kids need to know (as in, “Jose, you should know this, we covered it on Friday!”), teachers need to plan for students to uncover the big ideas of the unit through inquiry. The biggest pitfall I’ve seen teachers fall into with concept-based instruction is “covering” the concept or telling kids what the relationship among two concepts is. No joke, I’ve walked into classrooms where kids were copying notes from the board about their identity, which included the idea that their identity consisted of their name, place of origin, race, gender, age (basically, if you could find it on a checklist at the DMV, it was on the PowerPoint). This is NOT what we mean when we say kids need to learn about the relationship between identity and power. The teacher “covered” identity, but the kids never “uncovered” its meaning, nor did they gain any insight into the way it shapes their world. Uncoverage, people. Uncoverage!
The goal of concept-based instruction is transfer. By this we mean that, once they have uncovered an insight about the way the world works through conceptual inquiry, students transfer this understanding to new situations. For instance, students in a history class might study the women’s rights movement of the 1840s to uncover the idea that “The complexity of multiple group identities can prevent groups from uniting behind a common cause.” This insight is a beautiful product in itself, and many teachers fall into the trap of stopping here. We’ve made it! Success! But understanding the relationship among concepts is just part 1. The real reason we want them to uncover these relationships is so they begin to see their world differently, so they can use their new knowledge to analyze problems, make decisions, and influence others in ways that matter to them.
So AFTER they have uncovered, they need to practice transfer. Consider this next step: students read articles, watch videos, or conduct interviews related to the recent movement for marriage equality or BlackLivesMatter. The teacher asks: “Knowing what you do about identity, unity, and power, how might you design an ad campaign that brings new supporters to these movements?” Students then work in groups to come up with ad campaigns that take into consideration the complexity of multiple group identities, present them to the class, and discuss how their understanding of identity, power, and unity helped influence their choices. Does this take more time? Will you cover less content? Yes, of course! Concept-based instruction demands time and energy for transfer. It’s not optional!
Here’s the tricky part about transfer: it’s easy to get sucked into topical transfer rather than conceptual transfer. Topical transfer might mean teaching a unit on the women’s rights movement of the 1840s and then asking kids to evaluate how many of the goals of that movement have actually been achieved today. In this case, students use their knowledge of the topic studied, and the facts, but don’t actually have to use the concepts at all. It’s a lovely extension activity. It probably boosts engagement. It helps kids see “real-world connections.” But it’s not conceptual transfer because you’re not asking them to apply insights about the concepts.
Also notice that a transfer task makes a GREAT performance assessment for conceptual understanding. There’s no way for kids to memorize something you said in class and fake their way through the application. You’ll see right away if they don’t understand the concepts or if their ability to apply them is weak. When you give them something new and ask them to show you how their understanding of the concepts helps them problem solve, there’s no faking. They’ll know it, and you’ll know it.
My favorite part about these two principles — uncover and transfer — is that they put the burden of thinking on the student. Which is what school is all about, right?