Once you have a beautifully written statement of conceptual relationships, or even if you don’t(!), you can still be a concept-based teacher if you follow this simple advice: 

Much like Optimus Prime transforms himself from a semi-truck to an all-powerful robot leader, you can transform your curriculum from a pile of information into powerful insights for students to uncover! All with 8 little words:

What is the relationship between ___ and ___?

This simple question is the key to unlocking students’ synergistic thinking, as described by Lynn Erickson in Tuesday’s post. Synergistic thinking happens when students do more than comprehend information, or a text, or a math problem. Synergistic thinking happens when students use new information to confirm, challenge, or complicate their understanding of major concepts within a discipline.

For example, I might ask history students to investigate the relationship between liberty and security. These two concepts resurface again and again throughout the “information” of history. They are concepts that already mean something to students. And they are concepts that have a complex relationship to one another. Can you have liberty without security? Can we achieve security and allow people to live freely at the same time? Is it okay to limit someone’s liberty in the name of security? The list goes on. Students can be grappling with these concepts while they learn about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. By the end of such a unit they would have developed a deep understanding about the tension between liberty and security, which they could apply to situations today or in the future, like this:

Protests of a Japanese policy to fingerprint all foreigners upon entry to the country. (Photo credit:http://www.corbettreport.com/images/liberty-security.jpg)

Conceptual thinking produces transferable understandings that transcend one unit of study.

Sounds great! So, how can you get started?

First: Ask students about the relationship between two concepts. Check out Lynn Erickson’s list of examples in Tuesday’s post. Allow them to develop some hypotheses about the relationship between the concepts based on prior knowledge.

Second: Give students multiple chances to test their ideas about these concepts. Give them pieces of text to read or share a video. Have them analyze a timeline or chart or graph. Or have them conduct a short experiment. This new information or experience should help them learn more about the concepts.

Third: Have them write about how their understanding of the concepts is changing. After each small text or video or math problem ask students to explain what they are thinking about the concepts. Ask them: how does this new information challenge, support, or complicate the ideas you started with? This way students can see the progress of their learning! A good way to track their progress is by using this rubric.

Fourth: Have them transfer their understanding to a new situation. Give them a new problem, experiment, or event to examine. Ask them to apply their understanding of the concepts to “figure out” the new topic. For instance, if my students were studying liberty and security in World War II, I might give them a news article about a modern international conflict and ask them to make predictions about liberty and security.

Close your eyes and think about what you’re already planning to teach tomorrow. Could you frame your lesson with a question about conceptual relationships? Could you stop at various points in your lecture or reading or activity to come back to the concepts? Could you ask students to track their progress throughout by writing down how their ideas are changing?

Do you see it? Your classroom is already transforming!