Time for a quick game .  It’s called Can You Spot the Misconception?   Read each of the below scenarios and figure out what the misunderstanding of concept-based teaching and learning is.

1. An administer tells you that she disagrees with concept-based teaching and learning.  She explains that students need to know facts for the state tests, for college, and for life.  Facts matter so concept-based teaching won’t work.  

2. A teacher asks his students to read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and in pairs write a paragraph explaining the relationship between power and justice.  A student writes the following:

The more power you have, the easier it is to create justice.  

The teacher gives the students full credit and writes great job on their paper.

3.  Student A asks her classmate, “What did we do in class yesterday?”

Student B pulls out his notes and explains, “Mrs. X did a powerpoint where she defined justice and power and gave us some examples of each.  Do you want to copy my notes?”

Did you spot them?  Let’s debrief:


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1.  Concept-based does not mean no facts.  In fact (no pun intended), concept-based teaching and learning depends on facts.  Students need facts to develop complex sophisticated understanding of transferrable ideas.  Conversely understanding big ideas deeply helps them remember and apply facts.  A conceptual framework is like a filing cabinet in your brain.  You need the cabinet to keep the facts organized so you can store them effectively and pull out the right one at the right time.

Believing you have to do either concepts or facts is a false dichotomy.  As How Students Learn states, it’s a synergy.


2. Saying anything about the concepts is not evidence of developing conceptual understanding.  We need to push students to increase the sophistication of their understanding  and realize that this approach requires disciplined thinking.  Conceptual teaching should result in students generating ideas that are more complex than what they thought before the lesson or unit.  

The generalization the students came up with in this example isn’t wrong, but it’s definitely something they could have written before they read Dr. King’s speech.  How did Dr. King’s thinking about justice and power influence and deepen their thinking?  That isn’t clear.

The answer also lacks the evidence (in this case an analysis of the text) to support the generalization (no synergy between facts and concepts).  CCSS Reading Anchor Standard #1 (cite evidence to support conclusions) is critical making any generalization.


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3. Conceptual understanding should be uncover; not covered.  Students need to discover the relationship between justice and power through carefully crafted learning experiences.  Teaching the definition of a concept treats it like a piece of factual information rather than an idea that students use to understand the world.   Students need to have intellectual ownership of their understanding and that only comes with constructing that understanding for themselves.  Thinking for students hinders their ability to transfer their understanding to new situations and create a conceptual filing cabinet in their brain.   In this scenario, how you teach is just as important as what you teach.

So here’s the question:  Which of these misconceptions is it most difficult for you to overcome? 

I definitely have moments where I realize my comment, question or idea is based on thinking aligned with these misconceptions.  It happens to everyone!  The goal is continuing to refine your own understanding of concept-based learning by reflecting, collaborating, and taking well-thought-out risks in your classroom.