by Adrian von Wrede-Jervis, Director of Continuum Learning, Bavarian International School

DISCLAIMER: This is a sharing of ideas and approaches that could stimulate best pedagogical practice honouring the IB philosophy. Not all opinions shared fully align with current understandings of IB MYP recommendations and thus are not definitive interpretations of IB Policy, although every attempt has been made to honour programme requirements.

Why Conceptual Based Learning?

Paradigms are built from the conceptual understandings that we make about the world around us. These paradigms can be limited in nature or sophisticated. If we want to both broaden, and deepen, understanding in students, then we have to talk about concepts. In a similar vein, if we want our pupils to develop International Mindedness, then they need to be able to view things from multiple perspectives and weigh up disparate ideas.

In addition to mindsets, we need concepts when improving problem solving. Think of a global problem facing us: climate change, robots replacing the workforce, income inequality. None of these things can be solved by single approach or by a single discipline. We need systems thinkers who can transfer ideas to new contexts and understand various perspectives on a problem. This is why concepts are so important and why it is a central tenet of the IB’s Approaches to Teaching.


What are Key Concepts?

This is how the IB defines them:

Concepts are explored in order to both deepen disciplinary understanding and to help students make connections and transfer learning to new contexts.     ⁠—What is an IB education, 2017 p6

Key concepts are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.”        ⁠—From Principles into Practice p15

So in essence a concept is one that deepens understanding AND transfers that understanding across the subjects and into new contexts.

What are the Global Contexts?

Global contexts are a list of situations. If you do small tweak to them and turn them into questions something powerful happens. They reveal themselves as deep conceptual issues to be explored.

curriculum 2 curriculum 3

How do they work together in the Statement of Inquiry (SOI)?

In the early days of Next Chapter training writing the SOI was explicitly to a recipe: select a Key Concept, add some Related Concepts and a Global Context stir together until you can find a way of phrasing a sentence and hey presto you got a Statement of Inquiry. Or:

KC  +  RC(s)  +  GC  =  SOI

In practice, it largely resulted in an overbaked sentence which was rather lengthy, certainly clunky and often vague to the point of saying very little. Worse, nobody really liked the sentence and so neither teachers nor students were comfortable with it and referred to it as little as possible.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead it is can be better summed up as:

a meaningful idea and a context in which that idea is important.

To keep things simple (I think SOIs should be simple) I advocate that only ONE concept is mentioned in it. This sounds contradictory to what the Concept Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) institute, founded by Lynne Erickson, suggests. They say that concepts are made more powerful in the interaction of two concepts. I don’t disagree, but the power of the interaction can happen as you explore the SOI within the unit – at which time, you can bring in the other concepts as ‘lenses’ to look at the SOI through.

[See footnote 1]

So which ONE concept? Should it be a key concept or will a related one do?

To be honest, I cannot distinguish between them:

  • neither seem more general (and therefore broader for transfer) than the other or more specific (and thus deeper) than the other in terms of being an organising idea.
  • neither seem more fixed to a specific subject (nor more shared across several) than the other.
  • several concepts are equal members of both groupings.
  • it is acceptable to use either in the SOI.
  • the requirement for their coverage is same for both: once over the course and nice it is more than that.

So I have to conclude that they are the same thing.

[See footnote 2]

Do key concepts transfer across disciplines?

They could, there is the possibility. They are all concepts, some better and broader than others (some are problematic for other reasons that I will not go into now) but they simply cannot work as transfer agents.

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If only 6 of the 16 key concepts are found in more than one subject then they can’t be transferring ideas. By having concepts that are truly shared by all subjects and having all subjects talk about them is the needed mechanism by which ideas are both transferred but also looked at from different disciplinary perspectives.

This last point is important. Something that TOK teaches is: different disciplines (areas of knowledge) have different world views on the basis of differing scopes, methodologies, histories, influences, priorities and language. When Lynne Erickson claimed that concepts are “mental constructs that are abstract, timeless, and universal” (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p. 33) she, I would argue got it two thirds wrong. Yes, they are abstract, but they are evolving and contextual (not timeless and universal). They form the basis for a discussion about how the disciplines uniquely respond.

Having all the subjects sharing their views on truly shared concepts would allow this flow, transfer and comparison of ideas. Keeping this list as small as possible will make these conversations happen frequently and thus it allows the ideas to get deeper.

A Proposal: Global Concepts

The following is a list of concepts that could well meet (to a different degree) the needs of being relevant to all subjects, thus facilitating the transfer of ideas and perspectives.

Identity                      much of our expression and action emerges from what we believe about ourselves and our tribes, and that in turn influences the perspectives we adopt 

Reasoning                 the way we establish ideas about the world around us, are based on assumptions and world views; our conclusions are dependent on them

Development          we are driven by a desire to try to better ourselves, but it can have wider consequences.

Interdependence  in a complex system everything is connected; we have choice to act cooperatively or competitively.

Responsibility        winners within a competitive market hold the power, but with power comes the choice of whether to exploit or to consider how we respond to inequality.  

Uncertainty             there is always more that we don’t know, it is hard to establish causal relationships to any change

Purpose                     humans have an ability to make decisions that have higher meaning and that this is shaped by our values and ethics

Creativity                  we remake ourselves and express ourselves, and our ideas, in new ways

Such concepts are currently quite acceptable for use in SOIs, allowing the rest of the key and related concepts to be used as the lens into these shared concepts. This is well within the requirements of the programme and it tackles the issue of transfer.

[Footnote 3]

There are two significant spin offs of improving the conversation around concepts and the transfer of ideas:

  1. Developing sophistication

An oft neglected MYP requirement is that:

“Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction.”  ⁠—From Principles into Practice p58

I see no way of reaching these levels of sophistication other than by repeatedly returning to an abstract idea from a variety of perspectives. It seems essential to have shared concepts if this requirement is to have any chance of being met.

It strikes me that, unlike growing complexity in content and facts, this is a progression that cannot be articulated. It is nuanced and quite personally influenced by the prevailing priorities in any perspective taken. I would propose that students keep a reflective journal on how their ideas around each global concept are challenged, grown, changed, overturned etc. Only such a practice could evidence both understanding and nuance, which I think is essential for developing sophistication.

  1. Improving Interdisciplinary learning

Recently an IB commissioned Claremont Evaluation report was shared regarding the implementation of Interdisciplinary Units (IDU). They had found that most frequently integrations were of the minimal kind (when one subject pulled content from another subject) rather than more in-depth types (eg when understandings are shared). Further, in schools where they were implementing more than the minimum one IDU per year (which, not incidentally, accounts for a mere 3% of curriculum time) the students noticed “that their teachers tended to discuss what students were learning in other classes and how it connected to their current unit more frequently and more explicitly”.

The Global concepts idea will not replace the need for collaborative horizontal planning time. It does, however, provide the mechanism for supporting teachers in spotting curriculum links quicker and for making the language of conceptual connection more explicit. By improving these links it reduces the distance between subjects and makes the possibility of interdisciplinary connection and the sharing of perspectives of understandings easier.

Not only that, the more frequently ideas are touched upon then students themselves start to become some of the best curriculum mapping tools. They report connections in the curriculum that may not have been spotted by the faculty. Improving these connections will undoubtably improve interdisciplinary connectivity both in the formal IDUs but also more informally across the curriculum.

To finish, as I began, opening the mind to discussions from a variety of perspectives is the surest to an open and informed mindset. It allows the student to access the world with a more global and nuanced understanding of the world around him/her. This sounds pretty much like International Mindedness to me, which is ultimately the final focus of an IB education.

Footnotes: The following are clarifications of official IB MYP guidance and requirements

Footnote 1:  

Official IB requirements are:

 “The statement of inquiry:

  • includes a key concept, related concept(s), and a specific, relevant and engaging global context exploration

  • meaningfully connects key (broad) and related (deep disciplinary) concepts in ways that students can understand”

Evaluating MYP unit plans (December 2016)

IB guidance also includes the following areas of flexibility:

  • “Teachers can develop additional concepts to meet the needs of their students or local circumstances.”

(MYP: From principles into practice, Updated September 2017. pdf p. 15)

  • The key and related concepts can be represented in the statement of inquiry either explicitly, or implicitly through clearly representative words or phrases.

(Building Quality Curriculum feedback)

 Footnote 2:

The official IB position position on this is that the key and related concepts have distinct roles in guiding unit plan development, and both types of concepts need to be represented in the statement of inquiry:

“Key concepts, contributed by each subject group, provide interdisciplinary breadth to the programme. Key concepts are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.”

“Related concepts, grounded in specific disciplines, explore key concepts in greater detail, providing depth to the programme. They emerge from reflection on the nature of specific subjects and disciplines, providing a focus for inquiry into subject-specific content….Related concepts promote depth of learning and add coherence to the understanding of academic subjects and disciplines. They are grounded in specific subjects and disciplines, and they are useful for exploring key concepts in greater detail.” 

MYP: From principles into practice (Updated September 2017. pdf p. 15)

Footnote 3:

NOTE: “Global concepts” is not an IB term. It is designated by the author to represent a modified list of concepts that could potentially be shared across all IB subject groups. This list includes explicit use of three existing MYP key concepts, two concepts that are adaptations of existing MYP key concepts, and three original concepts. While schools may develop additional key or related concepts, it is important to note that the use of customized concepts does not replace the MYP requirement:

  • “Students need multiple opportunities to explore the concepts defined for each subject or discipline. Students should have meaningful inquiry into all of the key and related concepts for each relevant subject group at least once over the course of the MYP.” 

MYP: From principles into practice (Updated September 2017. pdf p. 58)


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Adrian von Wrede Jervis1


Adrian von Wrede-Jervis has been teaching for over 25 years. He cut his teeth as a science teacher and Head of Faculty in UK state schools until he moved to Germany ten years ago where he has worked at the Bavarian International School as Assistant Principal and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Coordinator; Director of Studies and TOK Coordinator; and Director of Continuum Learning. In these roles he has developed a thorough working knowledge of school management systems, data analysis (Diploma results analysis and pupil monitoring), and a deep understanding of each of the four IB Programmes and how they can be more closely aligned to one another towards a coherent Continuum of IB education.

Recently Adrian’s focus has been on how schools can adapt to the changing needs of our current social and economic context. Adrian is a trained and active ACE accreditation visitor and has a practical understanding of what constitutes a transformative learning community. Adrian dreams of an education system that develops interdisciplinary conceptual understanding, enables effective and informed inquiry and that supports the growth of a holistic range of learner competencies.

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