You’ve read all the books (or at least a few blog posts) on concept-based curriculum. You’ve reoriented your lessons to serve conceptual goals. You’ve sketched out the most important facts, topics, concepts, and theories for each unit. You have refined your generalizations over and over again to capture the exact understanding you’re aiming for.

But something just isn’t clicking.

Maybe you’re — to borrow a phrase from my students — doin’ too much. Every once in a while I have to remind myself that concept-based planning and instruction is super simple. And you really can’t go wrong if you follow these three steps:

  1. Introduce the concepts.

Yes, this sounds obvious. The kids actually need to know what the concepts are, and that the goal is to understand the relationship among these concepts. But I can’t tell you how many times I have arrived at the second week of a unit and realized that I bulldozed straight past this part. It’s easy to focus so much on uncoverage and inquiry and student-centered instruction that I forget to be explicit and direct about our purpose.

If your concept-based unit is floundering, check yourself: did you actually tell the kids what the specific concepts of study were? Do they know at least a basic meaning for each concept? Sometimes a day of direct instruction framing the concepts, their origins, perhaps presenting different shades of meaning within each concept, or how their meanings have changed over time, can go a long way!

2. Deepen their understanding of the concepts. 

Sometimes I get frustrated when student thinking remains stagnant and my instruction seems only to reinforce shallow, superficial views of the concepts. Why do we keep having the same discussion every single day, no matter the changing fact base? The answer is simple: this is what kids expect from their learning experiences. School very often rewards kids for matching, not understanding, ideas. For instance, kids in my 9th grade class are excellent detectors of examples of exploitation (we are studying apartheid in South Africa). They can define the concept, recall examples, recognize it in stories about the past. It’s a lot like “Where’s Waldo?” — they know it’s our focus so they are constantly looking out for it, using the concept as a device to screen out irrelevant information.

The problem is that all the “irrelevant” information is necessary to understanding how the concept plays out. What patterns do we notice in who exploits whom? When does exploitation tend to begin? What circumstances can we look out for to predict a rise or decline in exploitative practices?

If I want them to stop matching examples to concepts, and to actually deepen their understanding, we need to look at the gray areas surrounding the concepts, and kids need to be explicitly clued into this purpose. It seems obvious, but to kids it can be counterintuitive. They’re on a “hunt and find” mission when they ought not to be.

The fix? Pretty simple. Have kids write down what they know about the concept using as many conditional phrases as possible. I’ve found that this flips a light switch in their brains. When they know that they’re looking for conditional patterns they stop “Where’s Waldo”-ing and start thinking! I put this list up on the board and tell them to write as much as they can using as many of these phrases dealing with exceptions, nuances, and conditions:

  • If…then…
  • Only when…
  • But…
  • Unless…
  • If ___ had … then the result would change to …
  • An exception to this is …

3. Complicate their understanding of the concepts. 

Kids often want learning to be black and white. Contradictions and complications are generally unwelcome, and their brains work to sift them out. But a significant understanding of any conceptual relationship requires kids to face, and directly deal with, examples and information that don’t fit the generalizations they’re forming.

Here’s what happens every time I teach the concept of revolution (and related concepts of change, stability, injustice, and conflict). Usually, kids assume (rightfully so) that widespread injustice leads people to take major risks for change. We look at the Arab Spring, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. In every case, masses of people experienced such deep injustice that they initiated conflict and pressed for revolutionary transformations in their countries. But then we’ll look at the American Revolution and see a different story all together. It’s impossible to argue that the American colonists experienced objective, widespread mistreatment in the mid 1700s. In fact, scholars argue that they were likely the most free, equal, and prosperous people on the planet at that time. This should grind kids’ conceptual gears to a halt. It should cause some intellectual panic! This complicates, and in fact contradicts, their understanding of the concepts.

How do kids reconcile these contradictions? Unfortunately, they tend not to. They simply read the American Revolution they way they want it to be, not the way it was. They imagine oppressive taxation leading people to lose their fortunes. I get bitter paragraphs about how the tax on tea made everyone poor and destroyed the colonists’ lives. This, of course, is crazy. Not a shred of truth in it. But when faced with a complication, they unconsciously iron out the kinks to make the example fit their pre-existing theory.

My problem is that I know this from the outset. I have no excuse for not adjusting the learning experience to prevent kids from making this mistake.

The solution? Present contradictory examples explicitly and often. Tell them: THIS EXAMPLE DOES NOT MATCH UP! Ask them to find — and then reward — ways that the contradictory example does not fit the mold. Tell them: FIGHT YOUR NATURAL DESIRE TO MAKE THIS FIT!

Sometimes I get so bogged down in plotting an inquiry path through my unit, that I forget to be explicit about the basics. Sometimes, it feels like cheating to be so direct. But when my unit is crashing and burning, it’s good to remember that some explicit instruction at each of these phases can save it. Introduce the concepts. Deepen their understanding. Force them to deal with contradictions and complications.