Two years ago, Lynn Erickson, author, trainer and creator of a systematic method for designing curriculum called Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, was gracious enough to contribute to Ed to Save the World as a guest blogger. This piece on the conceptual lens is one of our all-time most popular posts. Sometimes you just need to go back to the basics! Enjoy. 

The Power of a Conceptual Lens

by  Lynn Erickson

Concept—such a simple word; yet such a powerful teaching tool! As a young teacher in North Pole, Alaska, I did not know very much about the conceptual level of knowledge and thinking. But now I understand the power of concepts in engaging the interest of students–and higher levels of thinking in classrooms. Let’s just look at one example—the Conceptual Lens.

A Conceptual Lens is a particular concept, or perhaps two concepts, that are selected to focus the thinking for a classroom unit of study. The conceptual lens is chosen after the unit title has been selected. The thought process in choosing the lens answers this question: “What concept(s) do I want my students to understand at a deeper level through this unit of study?” For example, if my middle or high school unit of instruction is related in some way toHuman/Environmental Interactions, I might want my students to do the inquiry using the conceptual lens of “Sustainability.”  A dual lens might be “Interactions/Choices” for younger students. An option for selecting the conceptual lens would be to post several potential lenses and let students (individually or in groups) select the lens they would like to use in the unit inquiry.

To understand the power of a focusing concept pick one of the following unit titles and see how many conceptual lenses from the list would work for you.

Possible Unit Titles:

Early European Migration

Our Community

Geometric Figures

Mythical Characters

Natural Disasters

Line: The Artist’s Tool

Sample Conceptual Lenses:






















 The choice of lens shapes the direction and depth of the unit inquiry. There are many benefits to using a conceptual lens—

  • Facilitates “synergistic thinking” – the interactive mental processing between the factual and conceptual levels of knowledge and understanding. Synergistic thinking is the key to intellectual development because students bring their own personal intellect (conceptual thinking) to the study and must process information at a deeper level in the brain to understand the relationship between the factual content and the lens.
  • Engages the interest of students because they are “invited” to bring their own thinking to the study as they consider the factual content in terms of the conceptual lens. Students feel their independent thinking is valued.
  • Makes the study more interesting because it moves beyond factual information to an interesting factual/conceptual relationship.
  • Allows students to transfer their understanding through time, across cultures, and across situations. If students understand how culture, traditions, values and beliefs shape identity in one culture, they can consider this same idea across cultures.

Yes, the conceptual lens is a powerful tool for teaching and learning. Do try it—it works!