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The Common-Sense Model for Teaching and Learning: Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction

The Common-Sense Model for Teaching and Learning: Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction

How many times are you, as an educator, encouraged to consider a new initiative that is sure to improve teaching and learning? Do you immediately jump on board—or do you sit back and listen critically in the training, asking yourself “Does this make sense, based upon my experience as an educator?”

This is the question I asked three decades ago when I realized that the traditional curriculum design, driven by content and skill objectives, failed to effectively develop the deeper thinking and understanding of students. Over twenty years ago I was joined by my colleague and friend, Dr. Lois Lanning, in the refinement of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction—our common-sense model for teaching and learning.

So what is the problem with the traditional model for curriculum and instruction?

  • Traditional content objectives are written as verb-driven statements (a verb followed by a topic of study) that assume students (and teachers) will develop a deeper understanding. For example the content objective, “Analyze the causes of the American Revolution,” assumes that students will understand the transferable idea that “Perceptions of governmental oppression can lead to political and social revolution.” In truth, however, students will likely leave the traditional study with a memorized set of causes for the American Revolution. The transferable, conceptual understanding will not be addressed.
  • Lanning realized that traditional skill objectives ask students to carry out a skill but too often assume they will understand why the skill works. For example, the skill objective “Determine the inferences in text…” tells students what to do—but fails to help students understand how or why the author uses inference.
  • The traditional curriculum design model fails to distinguish clearly between the lower level factual/skill level and the conceptual level. This failure keeps the focus on lower level coverage rather than conceptual level transfer and deeper understanding. In this age of quick access to information through taps on a computer keyboard, the traditional model of curriculum design does not make sense. Common sense calls for a shift from a two-dimensional curriculum and instruction model to a three-dimensional, Concept-Based Model.

What is the Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Model?

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction is the common-sense model that actually uses—but teaches beyond—the facts and skills to develop deeper conceptual understandings that transfer through time, across cultures, and across situations. The Concept-Based model does not “assume” students understand disciplinary concepts and conceptual understandings. It systematically builds conceptual schemata in the brain so students can relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, transfer understanding from one context to another, and personally construct deeper understanding using facts and skills as tools. It is a powerful three-dimensional curriculum and instruction model

Why is it considered a “three-dimensional” model and how does it compare to the traditional “two-dimensional” model?

The traditional two-dimensional curriculum and instruction model is an “inch deep and a mile wide.” It promotes coverage of information and skills rather than transferable, conceptual understanding.

The Common-Sense Model for Teaching and Learning: Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction

Figure 1. 2D vs. 3D Curriculum and instruction Models. ©2014 Erickson, H. L. (in Erickson, Lanning and French) p. 23

The three-dimensional model still teaches and values critical factual content and skills, but takes thinking beyond—to the deeper level of concepts and generalizations (conceptual understandings) that students can transfer to other examples.

Why is the three-dimensional, concept-based model a “common-sense” model? The three-dimensional model is…

  • Based on the actual, timeless Structures of Knowledge and Process
  • Not a fad which is here today and gone tomorrow
  • Supported by quality research on how the brain processes information and how people learn
  • Addresses the lower and higher levels of the Structures of Knowledge and Process
  • Teaches beyond lower level facts and skills to the deeper transferable concepts and understandings of the different disciplines—both content/concept-driven (e.g., science, mathematics, social studies) and process-driven (English language arts, world languages, fine arts and music)
  • Engages the personal intellect of students which develops the intellect and increase motivation for learning
  • Promotes thinking teachers and thinking students
  • Assists in sorting, connecting, and processing new factual and skill knowledge into the mental schemata of prior conceptual understandings.

Teaching is complex and challenging. There are many initiatives that support quality teaching such as “differentiated instruction” and “visible thinking.” But core to effective curriculum and instruction is a common sense model that teaches critical facts and skills while moving learning beyond—to the level of deep, conceptual understanding and cognitive transfer. That model is Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction.

Written by

H. Lynn Erickson, Ed.D., is an independent consultant assisting schools and districts with concept-based curriculum design and instruction. During the past 20 years Lynn has worked extensively with K-12 teachers and administrators on the design of classroom and district level curricula aligned to academic standards and national requirements. She was a consultant to the International Baccalaureate Organization for the development of the Middle Years Programme—the Next Chapter.

Lynn is the author of three best-selling books, Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and InstructionConcept-based Curriculum and Instruction: Teaching Beyond the Facts, and Transitioning to Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together, co-authored with Dr. Lois Lanning. The 2nd edition of Lynn’s popular  book, Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom: Teaching Beyond the Facts publishes in February 2017.

Latest comment

  • This concept I use in my own teaching craft, I call it 3rd and 4th dimensional thinking. It was the key to my high comprehension levels when I would take the Iowa tests in grade school and most teachers had no clue that I would perceive they lacked comprehension or an ability to explain the layers of literature. It would frustrate me when I was in 2nd grade, (my teacher seemed not very smart at the time) I now have a better understanding of what components trigger the ability to see the depth or layers.
    This also effects engagement. As a child I became non-compliant at times because teachers at the time were trying to teach me phonics and I could read before first grade. Reading was about comprehension and therefore when teachers spent a tremendous amount of time on skills and took out the enjoyment of reading I was angry. When students start to understand the text and chew on the meaning and connections, they crave more information. There is a misconception prevalent in the school system and it is a systemic problem in which many educators believe students do not want to learn because of internet and games and so on. However, I suggest as you have pointed out they become diversified in the strategies they use to achieve a multifaceted perspective. The students crave depth and when I read with them and stop to discuss the connections to their own lives and other literary text they light up and have amazing neural connections. They are engaged, happy and behavior problems are nonexistent. For example, we were reading the Giver and a student yelled out, “he was visualizing the Civil War!” He was ecstatic. We stopped and discussion erupted about the Civil War, I let them engage with each other and I almost cried. They were remembering amazing details about the Civil War and sharing their knowledge and we discussed why the author would use this in the text and what her purpose for this part of the book was about. I interjected to keep them cultivating the skills of not only knowledge but understanding the layers and wisdom we gain and how their own higher level thinking can help them problem solve. How does it make them feel about war and what are the reasons for different wars, what might they do in the future if they had to go to war? They not only didn’t want the lesson to stop, a few went home and did more research.
    I do have to say when I was a student teacher some years ago the professor chastised me for teaching in a multifaceted fashion and a mentor teacher was angry I engaged the students, giving them too much freedom to share their opinions. However, I will continue regardless of the naysayers because I am confident my students thrive. I am sure my students would agree and no greater testimony as when they come back to see me and write me beautiful notes.

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