What is the big idea – Concept-based learning
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What is the big idea – Concept-based learning

I am sure you have heard about concept-driven learning, but what does it look like in practice? What does the curriculum look like and what requirements might lead to the desired outcomes?  Contemporary curriculum experts agree that conceptual understanding is key for student success in school, jobs, and life.

By Eryn Wiseman, Leader of Primary Years


The Primary Years Programme, promotes open communication based on understanding and respect and encourages students to become active, compassionate, lifelong learners.  Although critical thinking ability appears to improve with age, even young children can benefit from critical thinking instruction, so this type of curriculum design is clearly aligned with the research about how we can best develop critical thinking from kindergarten through high school.


One of the main concerns for many parents and teachers is whether our students are learning enough content at school. Will students know enough ‘stuff’ to make it in the real world once they’ve graduated?  We used to live in a world where knowing a lot of information took you a long way in life. Now our world needs people who can filter through the mass amounts of information at their fingertips and understand how and when to use it.

Concept-based instruction is driven by “big ideas” rather than subject-specific content. By leading students to consider the context in which they will use their understanding, concept-based learning brings “real world” meaning to content knowledge and skills. We too often assume that if students knew and did, they would understand. Unfortunately, this is not the case. These days, facts are easily and inexpensively ‘knowable’. However, they often remain distinct and without any connection to each other, except through the strategy of grouping them into topics. This is where most educational systems stop. A concept-based education goes on to ask, what do these facts mean? How are they related?  Yes, content is still learned, but with the emphasis on students learning how to ask questions that will help them develop a better understanding of any particular subject area.


A concept-driven education develops effective approaches to learning; empowering young people for a lifetime of learning, independently and in collaboration with others and preparing a community of learners that engage with global challenges through inquiry, action, and reflection.

In practical terms, the PYP framework establishes a core of big ideas that matter. These KEY CONCEPTS form the heart of a connected curriculum. They come from and are shared across academic disciplines.  Concepts create a culture of thinking that invites students to see connections, contradictions, alternative perspectives, and different ways of thinking.

Examples such as identity, logic, perspective, relationship and systems can run through a typical student’s school week. Teachers connect different disciplines by using these big ideas as stepping stones, to the facts and concepts that they want students to uncover and explore. In addition to these big overarching ideas, concept-driven education provides structure in the curriculum with discipline-specific RELATED concepts that provide depth and focus.

There are a number of strategies teachers use to frame an inquiry so that the focus is conceptual and investigative.  A big idea runs ‘through’ the learning journey and helps students see the connection between the specific tasks they are undertaking and a more substantial, enduring concept.  Like the shades on a paint sample strip, student understanding gradually deepens over the journey.


Certainly, we adults have had to be more than simply ‘exam smart’ to gain employment.  In order to be relevant, a curriculum must look at all aspects of a young person’s development as a learner. Science specialists still need to develop their creativity; linguists still need to be fit; artists still need to be responsibly active citizens. Successful and happy school-leavers have both a bag of great academic results and a bag of capacities that enable them to use these results to good effect. These are ingredients for success.

Concept-based instruction leads students to think about content and facts deeply.  Learning that is driven by concepts necessitates that students transfer their knowledge between personal experiences, learning from various disciplines, and the broader global community.

Students become critical thinkers, which is essential to their ability to creatively solve problems in the 21st century. By introducing students to universal themes and engaging them in active learning, concept-based instruction: creates connections to students’ prior experience; brings relevance to student learning; facilitates deeper understanding of content knowledge; and acts as a springboard for students to respond to their learning with action.

A creative, concept-based curriculum engages the intellect and emotions of a student to a higher degree than a more traditional curriculum. This helps students to transfer their understandings across learning areas. They are better equipped to make connections to their own experiences and the wider world, both now and when looking to the future. Students’ motivation for learning is increased, as they are encouraged to analyse facts and consider implications in a personally engaging way.