Thursday, February 26, 2015

Don't teach concepts to children

Yep! You read it right. Don't teach concepts TO children.

Instead, give your students opportunities to EXPLORE concepts.

Let them DISCOVER the complexities of concepts by INVESTIGATING concrete examples from a variety of times, places, and situations.

In doing this, children will CONSTRUCT UNDERSTANDING of these timelessabstract, universal, and transferrable ideas that we call concepts.

Letting students construct their own understanding of life's BIG IDEAS is known as inquiry, which is more than question asking. Teaching in this way doesn't come naturally to me, so until it does, I've been trying to follow these five steps.

  1. Start with a concept.
  2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept.
  3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example. 
  4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement.
  5. Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps.

If you think using these steps could help your students construct their own understanding of life's BIG IDEAS, try them out and let me know how it goes. That is exactly what one second grade teacher did recently. Here is her story:

1. Start with a concept.

In grade 2, teachers collaboratively decided to have their students explore how people influence the world. During this unit of inquiry, students also explore the genre of biography, as they read about various heroes.

2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept & 3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example.

During the last several weeks, students in second grade have read, listened to, and watched biographies and have learned a lot about specific heroes.

After all this learning about individual heroes, the teacher posed two questions to the students: "Who is a hero?" and "What is a hero?"

Students responded using the Chalk Talk thinking routine (for more on Chalk Talk, see p. 78 of Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison). In the last step of the thinking routine, when students were sharing the thinking, they identified common themes and ideas that emerged. Those were notated by the teacher and are written in black marker and boxed in the pictures below.

4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement. (This step is very similar to the thinking routine Headlines found in Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, p. 111)

The next day, the teacher simply gave students a blank piece of paper and prompted them to write all they understood about heroes. The following were the student responses:

They stand up for people.

(they) doing awesome

Then, the students worked collaboratively to create one, concise concept statement.

When each individual statement was read, the teacher confirmed with the class if it was true or not. Then, students had to decide if the statement had any new information to be added; if it said anything different.

If it did have some new and different information, students had to work together with their teacher to revise the existing concept statement. The images below show the progression the concept statement went through as the class collectively constructed their understanding of the concept of hero.

First, the students started with ...

Next, they added a couple of attributes and took out the pronouns.

2nd graders then added how heroes did this.

To fit better with the vocabulary of the IB Learner Profile, they decided to replace kind.

2nd graders realized that heroes don't just help people.

The students struggled with what is the "right" thing. That value-laden statement is based on one's perspective and is not an absolute truth, so they knew they had to get rid of it.

But the students felt something was missing when they took out that phrase, so they put the idea back in, while acknowledging that "right" is subjective, based on the perspective of the "hero".

At this point, the teacher invited me into the conversation to see what a fresh eye could add. To make sure that "hero" was front and center, I suggested moving the dependent clause to the end of the independent clause.

Then, I suggested to the students that they change some of the wording so that it sounded more like a second grader. Often times when crafting concept statements (sometimes called generalizations, central ideas, or enduring understandings) we create hard-to-understand statements that don't sound like how we normally talk. Concept statements should be written in language that is easy to understand to all who read it.

Finally, I had the students test the statement to see if it was true in any time and in any place. To do this, we briefly brought up "heroes" from different times and from different places that they had already learned about. We decided their definition of a hero held up when applied to all those heroes, so it was indeed timeless and universal.

The students were comfortable that their concept statement encapsulated all the learning they had done up until that point, so the teacher wrote it down on their whiteboard.

5. Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps.
The second graders' understanding of hero is certainly deep and complex. The next step now is to continue to explore the concept of hero: read more biographies, watch age-appropriate biopics, read age-appropriate news articles, interview heroes local to their community, reflect on how their own actions could lead others to believe they themselves are heroes, etc.

As they continue to learn about other "heroes", second graders should be encouraged to continually revisit and revise their definition of hero as needed.

After reading about how one second grade teacher set up opportunities for her students to EXPLORE the concept of hero, instead of directly teaching this big idea to her students, how could you or have you had your students construct understanding of life's BIG IDEAS, known as concepts?


  1. Ryan,

    Thank you for sharing a process, specific example, and student work to show one way for students to think about a concept. Exploring concepts WITH students allows them to attach meaning and/or personal experience to a BIG idea making it more accessible and memorable. I agree that it is worthwhile to revisit concepts. Another strategy for building understanding of a big idea is to use questions to highlight a particular concept in texts the class is reading (from literature to information texts, including maps).
    Here is a link to a video showing what concept formation might look like with 4th graders:

    I appreciate your BLOG's attention to concepts as they are something that students can transfer across content areas as well as into their own lives.

    I look forward to more posts about concepts!

    1. Jessica-

      Thanks for posting the link to this video! I loved it. Some big ideas (some might call them 'concepts'?!?) that stuck out to me:

      *"Students will return to [the concepts] for the rest of the year and probably the rest of their life."
      *The quick-write & the S-T-W are great for pre-assessing students' understanding of the concepts & also to hook them into the inquiry
      *Great, authentic ways to develop literacy skills: discussing, writing, reasoning, justifying, presenting, listening, making connections, pulling out information, THINKING
      *Concepts can be brought down to the students' level and make them relevant, like reform at their elementary school.
      *"Now is the time to dive in and really explore these big ideas"
      *The graphic organizer could be used for whatever concept a class is exploring. I wonder if the students could have come up with the definitions for themselves?
      *She's great at pushing kids' thinking further. Making them justify and question their own assumptions.
      *"Kids of every academic level is capable of reaching these goals." The power of high expectations. (Speaking of high expectations, I really like how she's having the G4 students read the paper!)
      *"We want to have thinkers in today's world"

      I wonder if teachers in the elementary grades in MN could identify 2-3 BIG concepts from the entire year, like this teacher has done in CA?

      Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the great blogpost. I am new to PYP this year and I think the idea of having students involved in creating their own conceptual understanding of the central idea is great! It will help them make more meaningful connections :)

    1. Hi Tanya,

      Welcome to the PYP! Where are you working? What grade do you teach?

      I have had many a great discussion with other PYP educators about posting the central idea and the lines of inquiry vs. having the students develop those concept statements on their own. What is the practice at your school?

      If you try creating a central idea with your students like this teacher did in this post, I'd love to hear about it.

  3. I think this is great! It has helped me with this problem of how the students learn the concepts and this explains it so simply - for me. Thank you.

    1. Joyt - I'm glad to hear that the post helps. In my estimation, conceptual teaching is easy to plan and hard to implement (teach). You're welcome!

  4. I like the way you have explained don't teach the concept directly but let children explore n construct understanding around the word. I used the similar strategy which I call as unpacking the central idea word by word...describe' explain, find out what it means..
    Thanks for sharing your blog..Though we have inquired on people around the world who have made a difference but your idea to test the statement to see if it was true in any time and in any place is just awesome. I will certainly revisit our inquiry on WWAIPT & ponder on this together with my 3rd graders.

    1. Shobna - thank you for your feedback! Where do you teach?

    2. I teach in Bangalore, India.

  5. Loved your idea of exploring the concept and creating the enduring understanding or big idea or central idea AFTER the exploration. I work in a PYP school and we have just tried this with our 5th graders with big success. We didn't post the C.I at the star of the unit.... only at the end of the 5 weeks, students and teachers tried to write themselves what was the big idea behind their inquiry. I know there's been a lot of discussion about it among PYP educators.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing! This was awesome! Not just the post but the way you taught or rather facilitated your students to explore and inquire.

    I have been teaching grades 2-4 through concepts but now that I am teaching Pre-K I find it more difficult. I'm at an IB school in Kuwait and for most of my students, English is their second language. I struggle with the idea of how to get them to explore an idea or concept for their understanding.

    We are starting a new unit about living things. I took them out to the garden and asked them to let me know what they wanted to picture. I printed out those pictures and asked them to put them into groups according to their understanding. They worked in small groups for this activity. Starting next week I will be asking them why they put them into such groups. I don't plan on introducing the word 'living things' to these 3 years right now since I feel it would be difficult for them to understand. Do you think I am going in the right direction? I would like your opinion. Thanks!

    1. Hi Rahila - you are OF COURSE going in the right direction. Because that is the direction that you feel is right for your students. And if you do all of that ... and if it goes in a different direction ... then you and your Ss will be better for it. Good luck!

    2. Ryan
      Thank you for this reminder especially as we enter into Exhibition where the students are writing their own central ideas.