Concepts vs Content Driven Curricula Part II


This is Part Two 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.

A quick word about the structure of knowledge and what I’ve been calling concepts….


Lynn Erickson, who has done much to champion concept-based curricula and has worked closely in recent times with the International Baccalaureate, writes that a concept is a “mental construct that is timeless, universal, and abstract (to different degrees). Although the specific examples of a concept may vary, the general attributes of the concept will always be the same.” She continues; “Concepts are a higher level of abstraction than facts in the structure of knowledge. They serve as cells for categorizing factual examples.” (Stirring the Head, Hearts, and Soul. p. 30)

structure of knowledge

The thing about factual knowledge is that it is locked in time, place and situation, whereas conceptual understanding transfers across time, cultures and situations. In other words, concepts are timeless, universal, and abstract (principle/generalisation).

lynn 1

lynn 2

A generalisation or a principle is really simply two or more concepts stated as a relationship. For example:

Migration may lead to new economic and cultural opportunities or greater freedom. (where migration, freedom and economic and cultural opportunities are concepts)


Migration leads to cultural diffusion which leads to economic and social change. (where migration, cultural diffusion and economic and social change are concepts)

The alternative to a concept-driven curriculum is a fact or topic-driven curriculum. And here we come across an issue that is not new – what do we “cover?” As I mentioned earlier, there might be critical content from each subject area or discipline that we agree on that every student needs to know. The problem starts when that list, grows larger and larger, as it inevitably does, because there really is no easy way to ‘ring-fence’ this critical content, or no time when you can sit back and say “that’s it, we’ve got everything in there that is important.

So the list grows and grows. and this puts a lot of pressure on students and teachers to “cover” the curriculum. Standardised testing actually supports this trend because it forces teachers to focus on what is going to be on the test, and invariably those are facts and so the race to cover them all is on. More and more people, including educators and policy makers, have complained about this “mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum strategy: trying to cover too many topics with the result that the coverage of important material is only superficial.


What happens is that students end up learning lots of isolated facts that are not organised or connected.

It must also be said that deep learning will not occur with a basis in facts or content as well. Simply learning concepts doesn’t work; those concepts have to be learned from a study of facts. What I’m suggesting is that rather than learning many facts superficially, or even some facts deeply, that some facts are studied in depth but the curriculum is designed to get students to emerge from this study with an understanding of concepts and not just those facts.

So this is a balancing act, but one we need to get right. We need to organise our teaching so that our students learn concepts in the context of facts (or “content”); one without the other is is not a solution.

How to teach in order to facilitate this acquisition of concepts and deep understanding?

The simple answer is that we select not the widest possible range of facts in a particular subject but rather teach some of those facts in detail in order to illustrate the concepts that apply. Each subject or discipline has its own ‘critical concepts’ without which a deep understanding of the subject is not possible.

The following are some of the subject-specific concepts that the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate are proposing that teachers get their students to understand over the years of the programme. This list is not complete.


Compare this with a topics/facts based curriculum, taken from a syllabus from a Swiss Canton:


Now, I am not suggesting that these topics are not worth studying, but the question we need to ask is “why should they be studied?” There is certainly a plausible answer to this question. And we would be more likely to be able to come to this answer, and to be able to make it more meaningful to our students, if we considered what concepts we hoped students would be learning. Thus, if we took one of these topics, such as the Reformation (which we all know had a significant impact on Switzerland) and stated the purpose of studying this topic in the following way:


By adding the phrase in order to understand we begin to focus the learning on the concepts (in this case conflict and belief systems) and students then have concepts and a generalisation with which they can begin to understand other religious conflicts, of the past and today. As I mentioned earlier, this cannot be done by only studying one set of ‘facts/topic,’ so when we are designing programme of study we should ensure that students are provided with the opportunity to study at least one other example of religious conflict.


In this way we are educating the intelligence of students, and not just training their memories.