I don’t know a single teacher who would intentionally set out to do the thinking for their students. Yet, that is exactly what happens when teachers begin lessons or units by sharing conceptual understandings before they have begun to explore factual content. Students are cheated of the opportunity to grapple with ideas, seek connections, and articulate significant conceptual understandings for themselves.
With appropriate scaffolding and support, all students are capable of thinking conceptually. Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction promotes an inductive philosophy where lessons are intentionally designed so that students examine examples and attributes of a concept or conceptual understanding and use this information to construct significant conceptual ideas (generalizations). Students develop a deeper understanding when they are given the opportunity to do the cognitive work themselves, moving from the facts and skills to transferable conceptual understandings.
When teachers adopt an inductive approach, they invite thinking through their use of factual, conceptual, and debatable questions. Beginning with questions grounded in factual content and processes and moving on to conceptual questions that support transfer provides the scaffolding students need to make connections and generate powerful and significant ideas. Teachers may adapt their questions or provide alternative factual examples for additional scaffolding, but the conceptual understanding is not differentiated.
I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the buzz and engagement in the classroom that comes from teachers supporting students in constructing their own understandings. Passing the responsibility for thinking back to students is both empowering and motivating. When students are cognitively engaged in the synergistic interplay between the concrete and the abstract, they demonstrate deeper levels of understanding. Synergy describes an interaction where the sum effect is greater than either agent acting alone. When curriculum and instruction require students to organize and represent factual-information and processes at the conceptual level, they demonstrate greater retention of their learning.
If we recognize the importance of conceptual understandings, it begs the question: Why do initial attempts to shift to Concept-Based Instruction so often adopt a deductive approach, where teachers begin by telling students what they want them to understand?
- It could be simply because teachers are more familiar and comfortable with a two-dimensional model of instruction where the goal is learning facts and skills.
- Teachers may feel pressure to post the objective for learning and get students to mastery as quickly as possible.
- Possibly, teachers need further professional development to establish a repertoire of tools and strategies to support synergistic thinking.
- Or maybe, teachers have become so used to doing the thinking for their students and lack confidence that their students will arrive at conceptual understandings themselves.
Although deductive teaching and direct instruction may be appropriate at times in a Concept-Based classroom, we need to be able to move more of our instruction to an inductive approach allowing student to think for themselves.
I believe that students have greater potential and cognitive capability than they are often given credit for. If an inductive approach is not already embedded in your classroom practice, I challenge you to give it a try with the next unit you teach. I think you will be both surprised and delighted with what your students are capable of. It is time for you to give your students the responsibility of doing the thinking!
More information about how inductive teaching engages students in inquiry can be found in Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, 2nd edition.
Jay Goyal / December 20, 2016
To your question “Why do… teachers begin by telling students what they want them to understand?”, one thing not considered in your list is the evidence behind that approach (see Hattie, Marzano), where having clear learning objectives as being a highly effective practice for impacting outcomes. Personally, I’m more of a fan of the inductive or inquiry-based approach, as it seemingly leads to higher engagement. But I recently noticed “inquiry-based” gets a 0.31 on Hattie, below the 0.4 effectiveness cutoff. Would love your thoughts or research on this.
Rachel French / December 23, 2016
A great question Jay! When interpreting Hattie’s research it is important to delve into the way concepts, such as inquiry, are defined. Hattie talks about the limited effectiveness of student centred inquiry or problem based learning where there is little direction or intervention from the teacher. Concept-Based promotes inquiry, using specific learning targets (knowledge, skill and understandings) identified in the curriculum.
Teachers use conceptually designed learning experiences as well as factual, conceptual and debatable questions to deliberately shape the direction of the inquiry. Hattie’s research very much supports Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction and the importance of students doing the thinking. “If the students are not doing enough thinking something is seriously wrong with the instruction”. (Hattie, 2009). Chapter 4 of our book Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, 2nd edition addresses this in more detail and Concept-Based workshops help teachers put it all together. Thanks for the conversation!