Components of Concept-Centered Learning
Units, themes, and topics are organized around concepts. From these concepts, understandings are developed and connected to essential questions. Concept-centered learning enables students to make connections to prior knowledge and lays a solid foundation for future learning. Concept-centered learning promotes contextual development of knowledge and skills, therefore increasing the likelihood of both mastery and retention.
To ensure that all students have access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the Framework for Quality Learning contains organizing concepts from which enduring understandings are derived. These concepts have been identified by national organizations including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Council for History Education, National Council of the Social Studies, International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and the College Board. Organizing curriculum around concepts establishes a common thread as curriculum spirals with increasing complexity from kindergarten through grade twelve, providing students with scaffolding needed to reach the next level of achievement.
Working at the conceptual level helps students make connections within and across the disciplines. See Appendix A for interdisciplinary and discipline-level concepts. A language arts unit, Coming of Age, might be grounded in the interdisciplinary concept of change and continuity, examining the significance of understanding cultural context as it relates to reading and writing. This concept might lead to the enduring understanding that change and continuity in language and literature reflect individual and societal evolution. (Figure 2).
Enduring understandings sharpen the focus of a unit for both the educator and the student, stating clearly what is to be learned rather than simply identifying the area or topic of inquiry, resulting in a deeper level of understanding (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). Enduring understandings are broad generalizations that connect concepts. They are typically written in a statement that shows the relationship between two or more concepts using powerful and active verbs that paint a picture and motivate students. As enduring understandings are timeless, they are revisited throughout one's life with increasing sophistication as the individual deepens understanding and builds connections across concepts. Enduring Understands within each discipline are provided in Appendix A.
Essential questions are open-ended questions that stem from enduring understandings, spiraling throughout the curriculum and moving forward into adulthood. Essential questions motivate and challenge students to explore and construct new meanings by synthesizing and evaluating new information.
Language Arts Example
Interdisciplinary Concepts: Change and Continuity
Language Arts Concept: Cultural Context
How do teachers plan using concept-based thinking and backward design strategies?
What teachers might have at the table while planning with colleagues:
- the Framework for Quality Learning,
- the Division Curriculum Framework for the discipline,
- the Virginia Standards of Learning Curriculum Framework for the discipline - both grade level and cross-grade level,
- other disciplines' Curriculum Frameworks and SOL that might set up interdisciplinary learning opportunities
- the SOL Scope and Sequence for the discipline, and relevant assessment data.
Thinking through selecting a conceptual lens:
A conceptual lens provides a way to look at the information, much like using a filter in photography. It doesn't change the pieces of the picture, but it does affect how they look.
Begin with what students need to know, understand, and be able to do. Consult various standards and frameworks. Consider relevant data, particularly pre-assessment. This could be a "jumping off" point that minimizes under teaching or beginning instruction without adequate background knowledge. Then select a conceptual lens that will maximize deep understanding throughout the course of the school year and a student's K-12 school experience.
A "think aloud" example from a Language Arts/English teacher:
So, if I were to plan a unit starting with several of Poe's short stories, I need to consider, in relation to other units I will teach throughout the year, the lens through which students will study those short stories. If I select a thematic approach, I might have students read and discuss short stories with a central theme of fear of the unknown. I might structure their study around their personal fears of the unknown. I could then relate these stories to a larger work or other short works with the same theme. In this way, students would look at fear of the unknown as a universal experience.
Or I could choose a conceptual lens of author's craft. Although students would still discuss the central themes, we would spend more time analyzing Poe's use of sentence structure, vocabulary, figurative language, and such to determine how he brings a story to life. We could compare Poe's craft with that of other authors we have studied. Students could write emulating Poe's style and syntax, which would also bring in the lens of aesthetics.
No matter which conceptual lens is selected, the others are still relevant and should be explored as appropriate. Selecting a conceptual lens does not mean ignoring the others; it means elevating one to use it as a filter for studying a topic. Figure 2 illustrates how the enduring understandings, essential understandings, and essential questions may connect for a specific unit.
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