Written by Maggie Sabin, Amsterdam International Community School 

Whether you are experienced with or new to inquiry-based teaching, you will regularly hear the word “concept”  when planning your lessons and learning engagements. You may already feel comfortable in your knowledge of what a concept is and how to teach so your children gain an understanding of the concept you want them to learn, or you may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching broad concepts instead of specific topics. You may not even know the difference between a concept and topic and may use these words interchangeably. Wherever you are in your teaching and familiarity with concept-based teaching, the information provided in this post will support what you are already doing in your classroom and guide you to become a more confident and competent concept-based teacher.

What is a Concept?

Let’s first begin by exploring what a concept actually is and what it is not. Concepts are big, all-encompassing ideas that withstand the test of time and are not constrained to a particular group of people, area or time period and are therefore accessible to every student. According to the IB, “Concepts represent ideas that are broad, abstract, timeless and universal.” They drive an inquiry and help to broaden and deepen your students’ learning. 

This description of a concept might resonate with you, or refresh your memory, and you may already have a good idea of what a concept is. If that is not the case, no need to worry, specific, concrete examples of what is and is not a concept will be provided for you. 

Examples of what a concept is:

  • Culture/Community/Relationships – we start the year with this concept and inquiry. We explore the cultures represented in our classroom and the common ground we all share. We look into language, celebrations, food, music, pretty much everything that defines a culture. And we look at our classroom community, the community around us and what roles we play. 
  • Migration/Immigration/Journeys – this something I have recently explored with my students. The possibilities with this concept are endless. You can discuss different types of journeys people make, get into transportation, immigration which can explore refugees or experiences of immigrants. Life cycles can come into play here as you discuss the journey a caterpillar makes. You can even explore migration of birds and animals or ancient humans. 
  • Conflict – this can start small with the exploration of conflict within the classroom itself or you can explore big conflicts over time which can bring you into technology, resources, political ideologies or cultural differences or any other direction your students choose to go in.
  • Emotions – this is a big concept and especially important for developing children to understand. You can delve into individual emotions, how to express emotions, look at art, music, drama, dance and which emotions they invoke in us and you can even explore how plants and animals express emotions. 

As you can see from the above examples, your inquiry can take many different routes and even if you use the same concept each and every year, how you explore it and where you end up will be completely different. You will also notice that these concepts are not limiting. They are broad, timeless and universal.

You might be asking yourself, “so what isn’t a concept?”. A concept is not something that is specific or only relates to a certain period of time, group of people or place.  It is not something that is only experienced by few and not relatable to students. 

Examples of what a concept is not:

  • Penguins 
  • The Egyptian Pyramids
  • World War II
  • The Wright Brothers

Not to say that you cannot teach your students about the topics above or any other specific topic you can think of, you absolutely can, but these are not concepts.* In general, these topics are very specific and limiting. Let’s take “Penguins” as an example. Penguins are fantastic animals to learn about, but you do not have much room to grow an inquiry. You can discuss their habitat, where they live, their diet, predators, bodies, how it survives in snow and cold temperatures, but the directions your inquiry can go are very limited, especially when we compare it to a concept like “change”. Hopefully you are beginning to understand what makes a concept a concept so we can begin looking into how to teach concepts and why they are so important for children to learn.

*More advice on how to integrate these topics into your inquiry is to follow. 

Why Teach a Concept and Not a Topic?

I am sure the majority of teachers, no matter where or with how much experience, has taught a topic and that is OK. It is how teaching has been done for years and students still manage to grow up to be successful adults. So why do we need to bother with teaching concepts? 

Concept-based teaching allows students to deepen their knowledge of a certain subject and not just memorize the facts. It draws upon prior knowledge and continues to expand their knowledge year after year.  Concept-based learning encourages learning across, between and among different subjects such as science, math and literacy as it is broad enough to encompass all of this subject matter. It does not just isolate and focus on one skill at a time. Because of this, students gain the skills to solve complex problems. Think about it. As a teacher or adult in general, when you come across a complex problem you must solve in your life, are you only relying on your math skills? Or are you engaging several skills at the same time, like critical thinking, organizing, math, and maybe your writing or speaking skills? Nothing in life happens in a vacuum, so we must teach our students that important lesson.

Finally, because concepts are universal, timeless and abstract, they connect us to one another. They are accessible to every student because every student has probably experienced a concept once in their life. For example, every student has experienced “Change”, whether in themselves or in their circumstances. With concepts, students begin to realize that as a human race, we all have shared experiences. This is important because as global citizens, we are becoming more connected and our lives more intertwined and this fact will become more true as our students age.

A Note About Key and Related Concepts in the PYP

If you teach at a PYP or IB school, you will be familiar with the idea of Key and Related concepts. The PYP has a set number of concepts that you must cover over the course of the school year. For each Unit of Inquiry the collaborative planning team is expected to choose three Key Concepts and it is usually up to the collaborative planning team to choose the amount of Related Concepts they deem appropriate. The Key Concepts in the PYP are:

  • Form
  • Function
  • Causation
  • Change
  • Connection
  • Perspective
  • Responsibility

You are also expected to teach related concepts that support your key concept. For example, under the Key Concept “Form” related concepts include but are not limited to:

  • Properties
  • Structure
  • Similarities
  • Differences
  • Pattern

There may be some confusion over the difference between a Key Concept and Related Concept. Think of Key Concepts as the overarching idea that drives your inquiry. A Related Concept is a more specific idea that supports your Key Concept, they add more detail and depth to your inquiry. For example, students that are exploring the concept of “Connection” may look at different ecosystems and the relationships (Related Concept) between them and their interconnectedness (Related Concept). You see how the overarching idea was “Connection” and how that concept was narrowed down into an investigation into the interconnectedness of ecosystems?

Concept-Based Teaching & Concept Driven Learners

Now that you have an idea of what a concept is, let’s explore how you actually go about teaching a concept. This is where many teachers, myself included, tend to get overwhelmed, so I will do my best to share my experience and what works best for me. If you are interested in learning more about best practice of teaching a concept, I suggest you click here to read chapter one in Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary: Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning by Julia Stern, Krista Ferraro and Juliet Mohnkern. 

When planning a unit, my approach is twofold. I use Kath Murdoch’s “Inquiry Cycle” to help my students move through the inquiry process and I adopt the “Backward Design” approach introduced by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. To make it more digestible, I have broken my unit planning thought process down into easy to follow steps.

Kath Murdochs Inquiry Cycle
Backwards Design Unit Template e1620939530514
  1. OWI ask myself, “What exactly do I want my students to know at the end of this unit?” and write those objectives down – this usually includes skills-based learning in math and literacy, conceptual understandings and even factual understanding.
  2. I then ask myself, “How will I know my students understand the concepts I have taught?” – this is where I create my pre-assessment, formative assessments, summative assessment and any other assessment tools or criteria I might need. It may seem a bit odd to plan your assessments before you plan any lessons, but this way it ensures you are directly monitoring your students’ conceptual understanding.* *More information on how to assess for conceptual understanding provided below.
  3. I then ask myself, “How will my students gain that understanding?” – this question is the bulk of my planning. To tackle it, I basically use a roadmap with three large “mile-markers” on the road to the finish line. These “mile-markers” are my lines of inquiry or alternatively, three big questions my students should be able to answer by the end of the unit. I usually start with the last skill or piece of knowledge my students should have before they have a full conceptual understanding of the unit and then work backwards from there.
    • For example, I have a unit that involves the concept of “causation”. I want my students to know that changes in natural cycles impact other natural cycles. The question my students need to answer right before this is, “what is cause and effect?”. They need to understand the difference between being in homeostasis vs. what happens when the tiniest detail changes and how that throws everything off balance.  The question right before that is, “how do natural cycles or ecosystems work?”. We explore this as if everything is in perfect balance. The question they need to be able to answer first is, “what is a natural life cycle or ecosystem?”. This can be explored in many different ways and I usually go with ones that interest my students most. Between these larger questions my students engage in different activities that build knowledge and skills that help them get to each “mile marker”. 
  4. Once I have my three big questions in place, I then ask myself, “What do my students need to learn or be able to do, before they can answer those big questions?” – working backwards here again, I think of what knowledge needs to be in place before they understand the concept. What knowledge or skill needs to be in place before that? And before that? It is a step by step process until you reach the point of where your students are right now in their learning.
  5. Lesson Plan – This is where I plan lessons or learning engagements that directly address the skills or knowledge I want my students to learn. I plan these lessons with my learning objective in mind, which is usually what skill I am teaching or what bit of knowledge I want them to understand. Just a little side note here, I usually begin my units with a provocation or a lesson that is going to grab my students’ attention and get them excited about what we will be learning. Also, I make certain my students understand the vocabulary surrounding our concept. I explicitly teach which concepts we are learning and what they actually mean. 

Let me also add that just because you are teaching concepts, does not mean that skills-based teaching gets thrown out the window. There are essential skills your students need to master before they can begin applying them in concept-based learning. Your students will not be able to solve complex, real-world problems that involve numerous skills if they do not know how to count or cannot recognize words or letters. Continue to teach those essential skills but then provide more organic opportunities for you students to perfect them. 

How to Incorporate your Beloved Topics into Your Concept-Based Curriculum

Remember those examples of what a concept is not? Those very specific topics? Let’s explore how you can still teach these topics but in a more conceptual way. I will give you an example from my own teaching that will hopefully demonstrate how easy it can be to incorporate topics into your concept-based teaching. 

One of my Units of Inquiry explores how changes in earth’s cycles affect one another, with one of my concepts being “causation”. To explore this concept of causation, we learn about wolves. More specifically, we learn about how the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, completely altered the different ecosystems found there. We learn facts about wolves and different ecosystems, but we also learn those bigger concepts of change and causation as well as smaller topics such as interconnectedness and relationships. 

I chose to use this specific topic to introduce change and causation to my students, but hopefully you can use a variety of topics to get the same result. Maybe you are an expert on World War II and want to explore that topic with your students. All you need to do is think what is a bigger concept I can teach? Is it causation?  Can we examine what causes war? Is it perspective? Can we look at war from different points of view? Whatever your expertise or passion may be, you can include it in your concept-based curriculum, you just need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Assessing for Conceptual Understanding – What We Want Our Students to Understand

We have delved into what a concept is and how we promote concept-based learning in the classroom, now let’s look at how we ensure our students understand the concept we are teaching. This is where step two in my planning process comes into play. Like I said before, it can seem really out of place to plan your assessments before you have even planned your first lesson, but trust me it is really helpful in knowing exactly what you need to teach and in making certain you stay on track. 

I use several assessment tools in my class to ensure I get a complete picture of each of my students’ abilities and understanding. I start with a pre-assessment to obtain my students’ starting point. I get an idea of how familiar they are already with the concepts and where I can begin my teaching. Throughout the course of the unit, I plan learning engagements for my students that relate to our concepts where I can observe them for our formative assessments. I gather evidence of their thinking through photos, quotes, activities and observations of them through play. Through the whole of the unit, I am using assessment tools, or rubrics, I have created that help determine my students’ understanding of the concepts. My preferred tool of choice is the SOLO Taxonomy created by John B. Biggs and Kevin F. Collis. I adapt it to my students’ age level and what understanding I wish them to show so it gives me an accurate picture of their learning. 

When my unit is coming to a close, I usually take a few weeks to prepare for and conduct the summative assessment. You might be asking yourself why would a summative assessment take me several weeks to prepare and conduct? Maybe you are used to, like I was, very formal or skills-based summatives where you call children out into the hallway and ask them a series of questions that test their memories or retention of factual information. If this is the case, ask yourself what are you really assessing and what do you want your children to be able to do or know at the end of the unit? Is it that they can rattle off facts and figures about a certain topic or is it that they can solve complex, real-world problems? I choose the latter. This is why I involve my students in the creation of the summative assessment and base it off an experience that is common and authentic to them. 

For example, I have a unit that involves the concept of “Change” and we were looking into how journeys elicit changes in people and their environment. For my final assessment of my students, they had to choose what type of journey they were going on and fully plan for that journey. They decided where we were going, how we were getting there, what we would need, what we would do when we got there etc. Throughout this process I was able to see which students understood what a journey was, how everyone’s journeys are different and how their environment changed when they “went” on their journey. It also offered me insight into a lot of other skills such as organization, cooperation, communication, mathematics and literacy. And it took the burden off my students who freeze under pressure of a formal one on one skills-based assessment.

If you are unsure of how to assess or document a child’s learning, just always ask yourself these two questions, “what exactly do I want my children to learn?” and “is there a more authentic or real-world way of getting them to demonstrate their learning?”.


I hope this has given you a bit of insight into what concept-based teaching and learning is, it’s importance, and how to promote it in your classroom. It may seem overwhelming at first and go against the way it has always been done, but coming from a teacher who was so used to teaching topics, I see the value in it and I see the change in my students and their understanding. I feel more confident now that my students will go out in the world and be able to use their creativity and transdisciplinary thinking skills to solve those big and complex problems they will face. And at the end of the day, that is what we should all be striving for.

Maggie Sabin

Maggie Sabin

Primary Teacher

Maggie Sabin is a Primary Teacher at Amsterdam International Community School. She has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education and has been teaching Early Years for eight years. She has experience with IB Curriculum, the PYP, IPC, Reggio Emilia and Responsive Classroom.

Share This