Concept based learning

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Concepts in learning provide a support to extend and deepen student understanding.  They provide a structure to help students and teachers alike make connections between different areas of Biology and also to link these ideas across other subject areas.

What is Concept-based Learning?

Leanne Gerlin-Ketteral puts it nicely when talking about PYP, in WhatEdSaid's #pypchat on Twitter - Source

  • The world is changing. Knowledge is changing. The ability to view the world with a more flexible mind is invaluable. 
  • Concept based learning is about big transferable ideas that transcend time, place, situation. 
  • Content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us.
  • Content based teaching may not get beyond information transmission/superficial learning.
  • Concepts are a way to organize and make sense of learning. 
  • We can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas.
  • Concept based learning is a framework to study everything. Content can change, concepts stay the same. 
  • Information is useless unless you can do something with it.

Sebastien Barnard describes Concept based learning in the MYP blog,

“This type of education also explores significant content and provides opportunities to develop both disciplinary and interdisciplinary understanding. It offers curriculum frameworks and courses that are broad and balanced, conceptual and connected, and, finally, rigorously assessed.

So what does concept based IB Biology look like?

In 2011, Lynn Erickson presented a keynote for the IB about conceptual understanding where she described two types of concepts; macro-concepts which are big and transferable (like Structure and function) and micro-concepts (like the model of a cell, or cell theory, for example).

It helps to distinguish between Biological concepts which many of the understandings in the current IB Biology guide describe and the Big-ideas which are overarching concepts, not specific to Biology, the macro-concepts.

Macro-concepts are not new in the IB Biology curriculum.  The 2007 IB Biology guide describes ‘The nature of the subject’ where it says,

“Biologists have accumulated huge amounts of information about living organisms, and it would be easy to confuse students by teaching large numbers of seemingly unrelated facts. In the Diploma Programme biology course, it is hoped that students will acquire a limited body of facts and, at the same time, develop a broad, general understanding of the principles of the subject.

Although the Diploma Programme biology course at standard level (SL) and higher level (HL) has been written as a series of discrete statements (for assessment purposes), there are four basic biological concepts that run throughout.

  • Structure and function
  • Universality versus diversity
  • Equilibrium within systems
  • Evolution”

Are these concepts unchanging?

If we think about the micro-concepts in the IB Biology course, how many of them could be described as unchanging?  Interesting points arise when ideas are put into question, it's the way science works, by the falsification of ideas through rigorous testing. E.g. membrane models change, cell theory has exceptions, introns in genes are not expressed as protein.  If we only taught unchanging facts in Biology we would be doing a great disservice to our students and to the nature of Science. The macro-concepts are broader generalizations and so are usually less subject to change.

So how do the micro-concepts connect to the macro-concepts in Biology?

Only when we draw attention to them is the short answer.  This is where the benefit lies.

If you consider how a root hair cell illustrates the structure and function concept you begin to think more critically about this cell. You start to compare it to erythrocytes, then begin to wonder if there are similarities between the heart and it's structure and the cells and their structure. Do they both adapt in the same ways?  Does shape have as much importance in the heart's function as it does in the cells? How is the size of a cell limited in nature? Are organs limited in size in the same way as cells?  What affect does size have on animals, or ecosystems?

What are the benefits again?

One the benefits for students is that it helps them categorize information and to process and sort information. It helps to set up schema in the long term memory, and allows students to build new details into their previous knowledge.  Brain research tells us that this is what the mind tries to do.  It sorts information and connects new knowledge to old knowledge, stored as schema.


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