A Concept-Based Curriculum is one rooted in three-dimensions: what students will know, do, and understand. While this is an intuitive model to consider when mapping a course or unit of study, applying theory to practice, or rather, concept to practice, requires scaffolding. Experiment with these three strategies to begin the process of developing your curriculum with a concept-based approach.

1. Rethink Content and Skills

When looking at a course in Atlas and reflecting upon what will be taught in a unit of study, it is tempting (and understandable!) to feel pressure to create two equally comprehensive lists of content and skills. But different subject areas, and different units of study within subject areas, lend themselves more or less organically to a focus that is more content- or skills-based.

Content-Based Subjects & Units

Some courses, and the standards commonly adopted to teach them, such as Mathematics or History, are often very content based. In concept-based terms, these are courses that are rooted in the Structure of Knowledge. Units of study within these courses are frequently anchored by a bank of facts and topics, such as the components of a new geometric formula or a series of factors leading up to a significant historical event. No matter how well structured and practiced a discussion facilitated in the classroom, students will never be able to spontaneously stumble upon this knowledge. It must be imparted upon the students in some way, through a lecture, text, video, guided research, etc. In these units, there are skills to be explicitly taught alongside this content, although for many units, the skills explicitly taught should be considered the tools provided to students to give them access to the content that is the focus of the unit.

Content Skills
Introduction to Pythagorean Theorem

Concepts to Review

  • Right triangle
  • Variables
  • x2
  • √x

New Topics

  • Pythagorean Theorem geometric expression
  • Pythagorean Theorem algebraic expression

Key Terms

  • leg
  • hypotenuse
  • Calculate the lengths of legs and hypotenuse of a right triangle using the geometric expression of the pythagorean theorem
  • Calculate the lengths of legs and hypotenuse of a right triangle using the geometric expression of the pythagorean theorem
The Causes of World War II

New Topics

  • The Treaty of Versailles and German discontent
  • Economic downturns in Germany
  • Nazi ideology and Lebensraum
  • The rise of extremism and the forging of alliances
  • The failure of appeasement

Key Historical Figures

  • Adolf Hitler
  • Benito Mussolini
  • Neville Chamberlain

Key Dates

  • November 11, 1918
  • 1925 – publishing of Mein Kampf
  • 1929 – global crash

Key Terms

  • Third Reich
  • Treaty of Versailles
  • armistice
  • Inflation & hyper-inflation
  • Aryan
  • Untermenschen
  • Analyze the causes and effects of historical events
  • Track chronological events on a timeline
  • Analyze the influence of individual historical figures and ideologies on a local and global level

Notice that in both examples, the list of content to be explicitly taught to students is longer than the skills to be explicitly taught. While students may practice and apply skills from previous units and courses, what is included here are the skills, strategies, and processes that will guide students to make meaning of the content knowledge that is the focus of the unit.

Skills-Based Subjects & Units

Other subject areas and units are suited for a more skills-based approach. Units of study in Visual and Performing Arts, English Language Arts, or Foreign Language, for example, often include pieces of knowledge that we must teach students, but are really grounded in a series of skills. In a concept-based framework, this is referred to as the Structure of Process. While the content included is an important component, they serve as a vehicle for application of the skills, strategies, and processes that are the true focus of the unit.

Content Skills
Elementary Beat Competency
  • Good Night, Sleep Tight
  • Chop! Chop! Chippity Chop!
    • lyrics
    • quarter note beat
  • Detect the beat of the music
  • Sing the song while pointing to icons (including quarter notes)
  • Sing the song while clapping (or any alternative physical marking time) to the beat
  • Sway and “chop” to the beat of the music
Interaction of Elements in a Story
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
    • characters
    • plot points
    • ideas
  • Identify the individual characters in the story
  • Sequencing the events of the story
  • Identify the main ideas presented in the story
Conjugating -ar Verbs in Spanish
  • Regular -ar verbs list
  • Regular conjugation table (1st, 2nd, 3rd person, singular & plural)
  • Irregular -ar verbs list
  • Conjugation tables for each irregular verb
  • Identify the infinitive
  • Determine if a verb is a regular or irregular verb and modify the stem if necessary
  • Determine all conjugated verb endings for present tense (1st, 2nd, & 3rd person, singular and plural), using reference table
  • Use conjugated verb endings in a series of sentences – all persons, singular and plural

Notice that in contrast to the more content-based examples, these skills-based units have longer and more detailed lists of the skills, strategies, and procedures that students will be explicitly taught. The content contains relevant facts and topics, but this list is in support of the skills themselves.

2. Update Sentence Frames

As teachers, we use sentence frames to support our students as a scaffold. As curriculum writers, using thoughtful sentence frames is a helpful strategy to distill our ideas and expertise into a functional unit plan and curriculum map. A common strategy for stemming our statements in specifying desired outcomes for students is to reference the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or Costa’s Levels of Inquiry. While these are useful frameworks to help calibrate the level of thinking that we would like students to engage in, their application can be restricting. Consider these updates to your sentence frames to aid in the articulation of your components of your mapping.

facts ico Facts Students will know…
facts ico Topics Students will be familliar with…
facts ico Skills Students will be able to…
facts ico Strategies By…students will be able to…
facts ico Processes Students will be skilled at…
facts ico Concepts Students will understand that…
facts ico Principles & Generalizations Because they understand…and… students will conclude that…
facts ico Theory After understanding… students will better grasp…

3. Focus on the Concepts

While this point may not seem like one that requires emphasis in a concept-based model, curriculum mapping always presents the risk of losing the forest for the trees. It is easy to fall into a pattern of filling in individual fields of a unit plan and to lose the connection to the primary concept(s) that the unit is designed to help students understand.

When designing your units, keep in mind the goal of a backward design framework: plan with the end in mind. It is helpful to think of these concepts as the enduring understandings of the unit of study. Consider what you want students to understand well beyond the unit of study, the course, and their time in school. Trust your pedagogical and subject-area expertise, and consider all of these components of a curriculum map as tools in your kit to provide students with the guaranteed and viable curriculum that they will be able to carry throughout their academic careers and beyond.



Erickson, H. L., & Lanning, L. A. (2014). Transitioning to concept-based curriculum and
              instruction: How to bring content and process together. Corwin.

The Author

unnamedKelly McCurdy is a Professional Development Content Specialist with Faria Education Group, based in Portland, Oregon. She consults with educators domestically and internationally facilitating conversations about curriculum development and pedagogy. Kelly’s first experience in education was teaching secondary Humanities, and has since supported public schools as lead teacher, committee chair, and program director. Kelly earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and her Masters in Teaching from Washington State University.


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