Conceptual understanding
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Conceptual understanding

Empty clouds are filled by the sea. A giraffe’s neck got longer because it kept stretching to reach the trees. Parallel lines never meet, unless you bend one or both of them. When you breathe, you inspire. When you do not breathe, you expire. Blood flows down one leg and up the other. And my all-time favorite:  The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West.

By Eryn Wiseman, Leader of Primary Years

These are all real student responses, and they all demonstrate one thing, misconceptions, or rather, not fully developed conceptual understandings. Conceptual understanding refers to a connected and functional grasp of ideas. Understanding occurs when new information and ideas are incorporated into a student’s existing knowledge framework. Students link new ideas and information to prior knowledge and then transfer this new knowledge to a new scenario, recognizing similar patterns. Students with conceptual understanding know more than isolated facts and methods. They understand why an idea is important and the kinds of contexts in which it is useful.

Transfer skills and knowledge

Conceptual understanding is a hot topic in the classroom today, as rote-learning, memorization and other traditional methods of teaching are considered insufficient for real-world learning and application. When we teach for understanding and not memorization, we’re leveling the playing field and equipping students with the skills to succeed in the future. Just because you struggle to memorize your multiplication tables, does not mean you cannot understand what multiplication is. 

The ability to transfer skills and knowledge will be much more useful, than lists of information that might become out-of-date. Focussing on conceptual understanding, means that students no longer need to try to memorize information separate from how it can be used in a project or real-world setting. Making this connection supports retention. Because if facts and methods are learned in a real life context, they are easier to remember and use, and thus can can be easier recreated when forgotten. 

Head up to the mountaintop

Learning facts and skills only, is like standing in the middle of a forest, surrounded by trees: it’s easy to spot details but hard to see patterns. For students to think conceptually, they need opportunities to head up to the mountaintop, pause, and take in the entire forest. They need the chance to search for big ideas—to generalize, summarize, and draw conclusions by looking at their learning in a holistic way. With learning engagements in which students move between factual and conceptual levels of thinking, we can help them construct understanding, facilitate transfer, and build their sense of agency.

Anthropologists and scientists

In social studies, rather than giving our students facts and dates to memorize, we ask them to approach history as an anthropologist. We have them read books as someone who wants to understand why an event happened and then for example ask them identify groups of people, traditions and customs. When students can piece these ideas together, they’re developing the skills to see underlying patterns and cause and effect.

In a science unit,  we have our students explore a hypothesis as a scientist. We ask them how scientists approach new ideas — do they test them? What do they research? What do they need to know? Beyond knowing about plant parts for example, we challenge them to develop an understanding about how plants fit into the environment. Making these connections early on will equip them with the critical thinking and investigative tools necessary to make informed assumptions.

Teaching tricks instead of mathematics

Conceptual understanding is an important goal, because without it we might be tempted to rely on teaching kids tricks instead of mathematics, such as in the below example:

Teacher: Who can come to the board and show us how to solve the following problem?

1/6 + 1/3 + 1/2 =

Student: First I see that 6 is the least common denominator, so I write 6.

Now, it does not change the numerator for the first fraction, it changes the second by 2 and the third by 3. 1 + 2 + 3 =/6. Now, I add the numerators and the answer is 6. Now, 6/6 is exactly 1.

Teacher: Very good. Now, look at this drawing and explain what you see.

Student: It’s a pie with three pieces.

Teacher: Tell us about the pieces.

Student: Three thirds.

Teachers: What is the difference among the pieces?

Student: This is the largest third, and here is the smallest …

While information and facts are crucial to a student’s success, and tricks help speed up processes, what’s more important—but often underdeveloped because traditional teaching and testing does not typically assess this—is the ability to find connections.

Conceptual understanding

We are an IB school that runs the Primary Years Programme, I am sure that is not news to you.  This means that we teach our students to be global citizens and to be life-long learners, among other things.  We do this in a number of ways, through building ATL (Approaches To Learning) skills that will be useful beyond the scope of just a grade or subject, by modeling and developing international-mindedness using the learner profile, by teaching through inquiry and making connections to the wider world beyond our school doors.  And we help our student develop their conceptual understanding.