Concept vs Content-Driven Curriculum

Concept vs Content-Driven Curriculum – Part One

This is Part One of a slightly edited text of a talk I gave recently at School Matters, an event in Zug hosted by the SwissLinked, a professional networking organisation. The title of my talk was Concept vs Content-Driven Curriculum and it explains the thinking behind one of the main elements of the International Baccalaureate Programmes.

How many entries are there in Wikipedia today? There are well over 4 million.
Today, how long do you think it would it take you to discover a fact? You can get millions of results in less than half a second for a common search term (e.g. ‘middle school education’ yields 411,000,000 hits in 0.46 seconds).

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by chuq

How much of that knowledge is worth knowing and to what end?

What we study at school has many purposes. One is certainly to create better citizens of whatever country you are in, in other words knowing your own history is certainly important in becoming a “Canadian” or a “Swiss” (it’s the national narrative of how we got to be who we are). We also know that this narrative is by definition selective and leaves out as much as it includes, for the simple fact that you cannot possibly cover everything that ever happened. What we do choose to include and what we choose to leave out is an important subject in and of itself, but it is not the topic of today’s presentation.

Another goal of schooling, that we set for ourselves, is to create better world citizens (not just national citizens), capable of empathy, compassion and willing to accept different cultures. In our globalised world, this is increasingly important.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Richard.Asia:

Another purpose of schooling is to create better employees

Another purpose of schooling is to create better employees, or at least people who are well equipped to contribute to, and to be successful actors in, the economy of tomorrow (if only we knew what that was going to look like).

These three goals are important, and they are probably related in important ways, but if we focus on what we want schools to teach our students so that they are ready to tackle the intellectual challenges they will face when they graduate then I suggest we look at how we can reach this goal. And this means looking at what we set out to teach students in school, and so today we will look at the written curriculum. The written curriculum embodies what we have deemed for our students as worthwhile to know.

I’m going to speak today about how one might organise the written curriculum. The title of my presentation is perhaps not quite correct (although I was the one who came up with it) as it might lead you to think that I am going to argue for a curriculum that focuses on concepts at the expense of content or facts, or that facts are somehow not what students should be learning. I will not argue this. What I will argue is that facts alone do not prepare students as well as they could be, and probably not as well as they need to be prepared for the 21st Century.

I’m going to focus on this aspect of education at school (specifically kindergarten to Grade 12), but successful schools are based on much more than this one aspect.

Today, there is an ever expanding pool of knowledge and experts are more likely to focus on not just knowing but also what we do with that knowledge, and they ask is “knowing,” in the sense of having a command of facts, enough? In the age of Wikipedia, is knowing facts really that useful at all when whatever you want to know you can find online is seconds? If what is knowable continues to grow, and arguably has grown exponentially since we started living in the information age, do we simply keep adding to the list of things we expect students to learn at school? More and more facts to be remembered? Where does it end?

What if quantity of facts known is not the measure? Or not the measure of a person who is going to be able to navigate the ‘knowledge’ economy’ of today and whatever it will be tomorrow?


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by James Good:


photo credit

We’ve long realised that being able to do something with all that knowledge is important, so we include the learning of skills into our curriculum. Therefore, we have knowing and doing in the sense of knowing facts and possessing skills such as analytical skills, ability to communicate knowledge in various forms, ability to conduct mathematical operations, being able to detect bias in arguments, and so on. And this is not to mention that “habits of mind” that many think are almost more important than discrete skills.

So, we’ve got two dimensions. Is that enough? Is there another dimension that when added to these two (knowledge and skills) would improve the effectiveness of the other two dimensions exponentially?

What do I mean by increasing the effectiveness of these two dimensions exponentially?

I would like to suggest that adding the dimension of understanding of concepts, and general principles which arise from the relation of concepts to one another, to these two dimensions allows people to transfer what they know to new and unknown situations. It also facilitates what some have called synergistic thinking, the interplay of factual and conceptual knowledge.

This provides for deeper levels of intellectual processing. In a world that is defined by rapid change and innovation, not to mention increasing problems for which existing means of problem solving seem inadequate, many people believe that these are likely to be the key to success. For individuals, and societies, and the world as a whole.

What is special about gaining not just knowledge of facts but an understanding of concepts and principles? One way of saying of saying it would be that it makes us better learners and better thinkers.

transfer of knowledge and skills

Several years ago, in a book entitled How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School,


how people learn
how people learn


the authors argued that transfer is defined as “the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts” (How People Learn ). Transfer is important as a way of dealing with new situations, but this book also argues that it is one of the important qualities that distinguishes experts from beginners in any field. In other words, an expert is different from a beginner not because she can remember a lot more facts, but that she can see things in those facts, or can extract meaning from information, and can organise those facts into categories, that a beginner cannot. And thus can approach new problems with a greater chance of success than beginners can.

In How People Learn the authors argued that
“{Experts} do not necessarily have better overall memories than other people. But their conceptual understanding allows them to extract a level of meaning from information that is not apparent to novices, and this helps them select and remember relevant information.”

Experts then can organise facts into categories, classes, generalisations and according to principles. And, they can do this with ‘little cognitive effort.’ A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives

In an experiment performed during the research for their book How People Learn, the authors presented experts and college students with physics problems and then asked them to describe the processes that they would use in order to solve the problems. They saw that experts “usually mentioned the major principle(s) or law(s) that were applicable to the problem, together with a rationale for why those laws applied to the problem and how one could apply them.” Whereas, the college students usually described the equations they would use to solve the problems without mentioning what general rules or principles justified their use. The beginners relied upon their memory of specific equations and their abilities to manipulate those equations to suit the purpose.

What would happen then if the beginners met a problem that did not conform itself to the problems they had already encountered and for which they had memorised specific equations? They would likely be stumped, whereas the experts could analyse the problem itself and derive ways of solving it from this basis.

This is what we can refer to as transfer, which in this context is the ability to “transfer what has been learned in one context to another.” While a command of important facts or a base of factual knowledge is essential to developing the ability to perform transfer, it is not sufficient. “Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures.” (How People Learn p. 55)