Stage 3: Conceptual Understanding

Concepts and the IB

I’m a fan of the International Baccalaureate Program. I love the commitment to building a better world through education. I love the inquiry process of learning and the dedication to improving the quality of student thinking. Most of all, I love that the curriculum is grounded in the desire for students to gain conceptual understanding of big, transferable ideas.

I’ve been reading about the IB and working with teachers and administrators during Dr. H. Lynn Erickson’s summer Institutes for years. I’ve completed a few training courses and this week I officially start working at an IB school. After several weeks of immersion in IB curriculum documents, these are my initial impressions:

  • There seems to be a tendency in IB resources to have overly broad goals that do not adequately emphasize the importance of clear, powerful statements of conceptual relationships. What Dr. Erickson calls principles or generalizations, the IB calls Central Idea in the PYP, Statement of Inquiry in the MYP and Essential Idea in the DP. They must describe the relationship between two or more concepts.
  • How do you make a statement clear and powerful? It should contain a strong verb. Weak verbs are: is, have, are, impact, affect, and influence. They do not express a strong relationship.
  • A PYP example in the Opening Classroom Doors video series states: Signs and symbols are used to communicate a message. What about: Signs and symbols communicate messages that help organize communities and keep people safe. I think that students’ ability to discover and explain this central idea in a performance assessment would greatly increase the sophistication of their learning.
  • An MYP example states: Where one lives affects how one lives. What about something like: The geographical features of where one lives shapes the traditions and habits of how one lives.  
  • Bottom line is: the statements of conceptual relationship are the heart of concept-based teaching and learning. Those are the ideas that transfer to unfamiliar contexts. They need to be strong, powerful and sophisticated (not overly simple).
  • One of the tensions is the commitment to trans-disciplinary learning. The IB wants students’ courses to connect in meaningful ways. This is only possible through concept-based. But the danger is in watering down the curriculum in a push to make them all fit into one statement of conceptual relationship.
  • We blogged about interdisciplinary units last week. The key, it seems is to draft one big conceptual question rather than conceptual statements. Then each discipline can answer it relative to their discipline, in strong, powerful and sophisticated ways. In questions, you can use the no-no verbs because the students have to describe the nature of the relationship. Our example from last week: How does changing one part of a system impact the other parts? 

These are just my initial thoughts. I will write about a couple more ideas tomorrow. IB educators — what do you think?

2 thoughts on “Concepts and the IB”

  1. “An MYP example states: Where one lives affects how one lives. What about something like: The geographical features of where one lives shapes the traditions and habits of how one lives. ”

    This example also reminded me how making the wording more specific also points at the class/discipline the statement is meant to connect with. Your alternative statement is more related to world geography, but I immediately thought of food deserts when I read the MYP example, which is more economics.

    Just an interesting observation.

    1. Thanks so much, Debra! Very good point. The reason I went in that direction was because the video seemed to imply a geography class. There is a tension in making them too specific, often we have a few goals for students (like if wanted them to think in geographic terms AND economic terms). I think that’s the reason behind the tendency to keep them really broad. My current thinking is that it is better to just add a few more clauses, to be sure we are really taking the students to deeper understanding. So for example, it could state: “The natural and manmade features of where one lives…” OR “Access or lack of access to specific resources shapes…etc.” I did change my mind on this after years of working with these statements. My initial impulse was to keep them as broad as possible. Dr. Erickson’s solution is to have a mix of broad and specific, which I think is best, too! 🙂

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