By Sarah Plews, Senior Education Leader CLIP – Oporto International School

Hack into concept-based curriculum. Collaborate with a team and have a go.

Maybe you are wondering what exactly it means to “hack into curriculum.” And the buzz around concept-based curriculum. Here are some of the reasons we do both at Oporto International School.

Design learning experiences so that your students use their minds, ask questions, think critically, apply their thinking and solve problems. Watch the light bulbs go on and the big ideas emerge. Help your students have truly transformative learning experiences where connected learning moments shine.

For many teachers it can be a struggle to facilitate a conceptual learning experience, as highlighted by Erickson, where thinking beyond the facts to the level of conceptual relevance is a difficult skill for many teachers.

So where do you start to plan a concept-based curriculum unit?

At Oporto International School, year group and subject teachers operate in collaborative teams, each offering their own expertise.  Considered and purposeful steps are taken in the planning stages so that, when it comes to practice, teachers are best prepared to facilitate a deep learning journey with the students.

A typical concept-based curriculum unit journey has a predictable pattern that follows the steps of Engaging, Investigating, Generalizing, Transferring through project building or action, Reflecting and Sharing.Below are ten hacks, adapted from Erickson, Lanning, French, and Marschall to help you start to plan a concept-based curriculum unit:

  1. Title: Make the unit title a question. As opposed to traditional unit titles, questions help to ignite curiosity.
  2. Conceptual Lens: Define the key concept which guides you in the direction you want to take the unit.  Contextualized competencies for learning and relevant real word issues focus relevance.
  3. Unit Web: Use a web planner to make sense of a unit, to help you identify the main lines of inquiry and driving concepts. Erickson’s Web Planner is one of many planning tools your team can choose to use.
  4. Standards: Honour the curriculum by cross-checking standards and critical content. Check the learning is age-appropriate and ensures sufficient relevance and challenge.
  5. Essential Understandings: Connect two or more of the identified concepts together to make understandings. Erickson and Lanning suggest avoiding the use of weak verbs (influence, impacts, affects, can, is, are, have), while French and Marschall suggest writing five to nine statements in total for a unit.
  6. Essential Questions: Plan a mix of factual and conceptual essential questions to guide students in unpacking the essential understandings. French and Marschall advise three to five of each question type, with a couple more questions for a unit which provoke debate.
  7. Skills: Identify what you want students to be able to do. Plan to use strategies and resources which support development of transferable skills for future contexts.
  8. Assessment: Use rubrics for student work evaluation. Performance, product creation and student-initiated action are all strategies that enable students to demonstrate how they apply understanding, knowledge and skills to new situations. In this transfer students stress-test understandings, reflect and deepen understanding.
  9. Reflection: Design scaffolded experiences through a meaningful and authentic inquiry process. Reflection journals scaffold and frame student thinking.
  10. Overview: Share a brief unit overview with students prior to the start of the unit. This ignites student curiosity.

As teachers and leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure our practice honors the curriculum so that we support young people to develop core knowledge and essentials skills in their learning. However, the really powerful stuff is when curriculum learning is sparked, when students have the opportunity to make connections and find patterns in their learning.

Connections Artwork‘Connections’ Artwork by Nick Austin

What we want is for students to dig deep in the learning experiences, to grasp the big ideas, develop meaningful and transferable understandings, go beyond the facts, and truly see the purpose of their learning.

So go on. Hack into concept-based curriculum. Have a go!

Thank you to:

Nick Austin for the artwork ‘Connections’ @

Oporto International School dedicated professionals @ PK-9 concept-based curriculum Unit Little Learners, Big Ideas

 Key Reads:

Concept-based Inquiry in Action, Strategies to Promote Transferable Understanding by Rachel French and Carla Marschall (2018)

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, Second Edition, by Lynn Erickson, Lois Lanning and Rachel French (2017)

How to Scale Instructional Planning, Perspective from a History Classroom

With full-year instructional planning for curriculum, class material is optimized for learning, focused, coherent, and flexible.


FariaPD supports teachers and leaders around the world with hands-on, active and creative professional development experiences. Join one of our online or in-person professional development events, each designed to support the unique goals of your school or district. FariaPD is part of Faria Education Group, an international education company that provides services and systems for schools around the world including ManageBac, a curriculum-first learning platform, OpenApply, an online admissions service, and Atlas, a tailored curriculum management solution for schools.

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