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Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum

How do educators design a concept-based curriculum? How does a concept-based curriculum development model differ from more traditional approaches in curriculum, instruction and assessment? What can leaders do to support the institution of a concept-based approach to student learning? These questions and practical applications will be addressed.

How Do Educators Design a Concept-Based Curriculum?

Teachers with an in-depth knowledge of content, the inquiry process and the ability to make interdisciplinary connections can design concept-based curriculum (VanTassel-Baska, 1986). Thoughtful consideration must be given to how content topics are organised as part of an overarching theme, otherwise forced associations will not translate to enduring learning (Taba, 1962). We introduce some broad considerations for designing instruction and assessment for concept-based units, followed by specific practical approaches for designing engaging learning experiences.

Key Considerations

Select a Fidelity Model That Has a Strong Theoretical Basis and/or Evidence of Effectiveness A concept-based approach requires more than just discussing a concept or adding a concept to a set of facts. Curriculum design approaches require careful selection and adherence to a framework that has a theoretical and evidential basis. Careful selection of appropriate generalisations like those agreed upon by experts in a discipline as opposed to teacher-created ones also ensure that misconceptions are less likely to be generated. Likewise, when curriculum developers adhere to a framework, they are more likely to achieve the goals as replicated by previous studies and theories. Curriculum units that focus on concepts such as those from the College of William and Mary Center for Gifted Education and Vanderbilt University Programmes for Talented Youth are carefully designed using the Integrated Curriculum Model (VanTassel-Baska, 1986), which has a concept focus.

Determine the Content Students Need to Know and Connect That Content to Conceptual Understandings and Processes of the Discipline Content knowledge is important and serves as the basis for curriculum design. When teaching, concepts and generalisations are introduced first and then content and processes of the discipline are continually linked back to the concept, as illustrated in Fig. 1. The concept serves as an umbrella that links together the content and thinking skills inherent to the subject area. An overarching, real-world question helps students determine the purpose for learning the content. Concepts connect the processes and content together.

Make Sure Objectives Are Included for Concepts as well as Content and Processes (VanTassel-Baska, 1986; VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006). Each is equally important in unit designs and lessons. The inclusion of objectives in each area helps students and teachers understand the importance of thinking skills, concepts and content in ways that transfer knowledge and help students acquire a deeper understanding of a content area. Figure 2 shows an example of how concepts, processes of higher-level thinking and content-based skills link together with an overarching concept and objectives in each area as part of planning for a science unit.

Regularly Help Students Link Processes and Content to Concepts and Generalisations for Consistent Application of Newly Learned Information to Larger Ideas There are many ways to apply this to the classroom.

  • • Students may create their own concept maps and add to their maps each day or week as part of a journal or working document. This supports student reflection, allows the teacher to see how students are organising their ideas around concepts and keeps concepts at the forefront of the conversation.
  • • Teachers may also create an interactive bulletin board or working wall that lists the key generalisations and concepts in a way that students can add facts and ideas related to a specific statement as they learn new content. More specifically, let’s assume a teacher is focusing the concept of exploration. He has placed spe-
A model for concept development with processes and content

Fig. 1 A model for concept development with processes and content

cific generalisations about exploration (e.g. exploration involves risk; exploration results in new findings or confirmation of previous findings; exploration confronts the unknown) on a bulletin board. After a lesson or series of lessons, students add specific facts and examples under each principle as related to the outcomes he is required to teach in science (planetary systems), reading (character development in a fictitious story) and math (mathematical problem-solving strategies). More specific discipline-focused concepts are discussed in the next section of this chapter.

• Students may individually or in small groups analyse primary source documents, art or artefacts and connect their findings to generalisations of power (or another concept) by completing an organiser based on their understanding, as shown in Fig. 3. Of course any concept could be substituted using the organiser as a guide. Students complete this organiser several times throughout a course of study to be reminded constantly of the larger ideas associated with their learning.

Ensure that Students Are Assessed on Their Knowledge of Concepts in Addition to Content and Processes Concept-based models are more difficult to measure and are usually not measured or emphasised to the same degree as lower-level, skill- based knowledge. However, if it is worth teaching, it is worth measuring. Thus, assessing students’ understanding of concepts requires an approach that is more task-based, open-ended and is generally assessed by a rubric.

A unit design example of outcomes for generalisations, processes and content (Adapted from the College of William and Mary, Center for Gifted Education (2007)

Fig. 2 A unit design example of outcomes for generalisations, processes and content (Adapted from the College of William and Mary, Center for Gifted Education (2007)

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