This week we continue talking about concept-based teaching and learning. As a history teacher, I’ve found that it’s really easy to plan a lesson or unit that I think leads to conceptual understanding only later to reflect and realize that we spent most of our time down in the factual “weeds” and that concepts played a secondary role at best. Especially in a discipline that kids so often misunderstand — “History is so boring – so many names and dates to memorize!” — I need to work extra hard to make sure kids know what concepts are and how they operate differently from facts.

Otherwise, they’ll go through the entire lesson trying to pick out the proper nouns that might be multiple-choiced later, even when my goal is conceptual.


Since most kids start the year unable to distinguish a concept from a fact, we start early on with a concept attainment lesson to show kids how our brains use facts and concepts differently. It’s super easy to plan and kids love it! If you haven’t done this before, check out the three simple steps involved:

Step 1: Examples

The goal of a concept attainment lesson is for students to develop their own “definition” of a concept by investigating many examples. This works particularly well for discipline-specific concepts to which students won’t have had a lot of previous exposure, or for which their prior understanding is likely naive or incomplete. For instance:

  • class8Young science students are asked what it means for something to be “living.” After writing down their initial guess, the teacher shows several slides of living things. The first might be a human, then several animals. Kids may guess that “living” things run, eat, and breathe. Then the teacher may show pictures of trees, flowers, and mosses, and kids may need to revise their answer in light of the new examples, since these plants cannot “run.” Perhaps they notice that all of these things “grow,” so they add that to the list. The class continues this way with progressively more nuanced examples. Students are challenged to alter their definitions when the teacher shows pictures of pinecones and roadkill (since, in science, “living” refers to anything that is or has been alive).
  • High school history students are studying “absolutism.” They start by reading four short descriptions of absolute monarchs — King Philip II of Spain, France’s Louis XIV, Russia’s Peter the Great, Frederick III of Norway. Knowing that these are all examples, they look for common traits. They may notice that the first two monarchs are Catholic but, upon reading about Peter the Great, will reject this as a characteristic of “absolutism” because Peter was Russian Orthodox. But they might be savvy enough to notice that all of these monarchs claimed a divine right to rule.

What I LOVE about this step is that usually my history students would be reading about Philip II and Louis the XIV with the intention of highlighting and memorizing the dates or their reign and terms like “Edict of Nantes” or “Spanish Armada.” But they are so much more engaged when I explain to them that their goal is NOT to find and memorize these terms, which are FACTS, but rather to use these facts to investigate the larger concept.

Step 2: Distinguishing examples from non-examples

After students have working definitions (usually lists of criteria) for the target concept, they practice applying it to more examples and non-examples.

  • The science teacher gives groups of students a bunch of photographs of living and non-living things. Using their definitions, students sort the photos into two piles: living and non-living. Then they compare with a neighboring group to see if the result was the same.
  • The history teacher asks student pairs to research one from a list of other leaders to determine whether or not they fit the concept of absolutism: Benito Mussolini of Italy, the emperors of the Ming dynasty in China, William and Mary of England, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, for instance. Pairs share out their findings with the class.

Step 3: Confirm Critical Attributes

Finally, the teacher guides students through the critical attributes of the concept. That’s right, the more formal “definition” of the concept comes at the END of the lesson. By this time, students have a fairly solid understanding of the concept, so they actually understand what they’re writing down and won’t go home to try to memorize the definition like it’s a fact.

It’s also nice to spend a little time reflecting at the end of the lesson. When was it that you “got” the concept? Which examples or non-examples were most challenging for you? How did your partner/group help you develop your understanding of the concept? What makes a concept different from a fact? How is it different to learn about a concept (as opposed to a fact)?