conceptual understanding

Reflections On Learning

Teaching and learning are two words that are frequently used together. As teachers, we are responsible for engaging students in the learning process and helping them to develop strategies to become independent life long learners. In order to do this successful, it is important that as designers of learning experiences, teachers have developed an understanding and appreciation of what learning is, in order to best support their students. With the explosion of digital technology in the 21st century, the importance of understanding learning and how technology can be used best to support the development of deep conceptual understanding is essential to the future of education, teaching, and learning.

What exactly is learning? Learning is much more than memorizing information and reciting it back on a test. Learning is an active process of developing an understanding of concepts, through forming relationships and connections to material that is already known, often referred to as prior knowledge (Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J., 2000, p.10). Through this process, information in the brain is organized in a meaningful and purposeful way through the recognition of patterns that link concepts together. This process takes time, and we often have to examine a new concept multiple times, and from different contexts in order to develop a deep and conceptual understanding (Donovan, S., et al., 2000, p. 62). Learning is not a one-way street. It is a complex super highway that requires us to make decisions and choices about knowledge constantly.

As we develop as learners, our self-awareness regarding our personal level of understanding and thinking also develops, and is referred to as metacognition (Donovan, S., et al., 2000, pg. 12). Engaging students in strategies to develop their metacognitive skills is an effective teaching method to support the learning process and assist students in developing conceptual understanding. Prompting is one effective strategy to do this, as it assists the learner in gaining insight into the metacognitive process from a more experienced perspective. According to Donovan et al., (2000) “Prompts help learners think about and reflect on activities by getting them to identify goals, generate new ideas, improve and elaborate existing ideas, and strive for idea cohesion” (p. 67). With the easy of access of informational facts in the 21st century through digital technology, the importance of students developing strong metacognitive skills is imperative to their success as a learner in the digital age.

Learning a new concept does not mean that we start with a blank slate.  Every learner approaches each learning experiences with their own unique set of prior experiences, beliefs, and values. The challenge is that not all previous learning experiences are equal, and some learners have even developed inaccuracies or misconceptions within their knowledge bank. In order to maximize on the learning experience, teachers need to “pay attention to the knowledge and beliefs learners bring to a learning task, use this knowledge as a starting point for new instruction, and monitor students’ changing conceptions as instruction proceeds.” (Donovan et al., 2000, p. 11). The inclusion of strategies to assist in making students thinking visible (Donovan et al., p. 71), such as the routines developed through Project Zero’s Visible Thinking can assist teachers in helping students develop a deep understanding of a concept, and make corrective adjustments to their prior knowledge. The incorporation of technological tools to assist in the visualization of thinking can be an appropriate use of technology to support the development of understanding and conceptual change.

The examination of the foundations of learning is critical to teaching in the 21st century with the explosion of digital technologies. Designers of learning experiences must be mindful of engaging students in ways to develop students understanding of the learning process, as well as developing deep and conceptual understanding. Through the appropriate use of technology, supported by a deep understanding of the learning process, 21st century teachers can engage students in becoming life long learners.


Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from

Aha Moment! Teaching for Conceptual Understanding

Today I was reading through some reflection forms my students filled out at the end of our Where We Are In Place And Time Unit focused on civilizations and had an “Aha Moment!”.

The students were asked to “Explain what Where We Are In Place and Time means to you now that we have examined previous societies and civilizations.”

This was one of the responses the students wrote:
” I finally know why we live the way we do. It’s because of all these civilizations before us. Where we are in place and time is not a question but an answer.”

This is why I love teaching for conceptual understanding and focusing on the big ideas! This student has clearly taken something away grander than the individual facts about each civilization that they are going to forget, but truly made a deep, philosophical understanding beyond the facts.

Moving From Concept Based Instruction to Concept Based Inquiry

This past Sunday and Monday I participated in a school-based workshop on the IB Primary Years Program. It was a great opportunity to connect our faculty together and discuss some important issues that are facing our faculty. One of the things that I have been personally reflecting on over since the workshop is how I need to shift from “topic-based instruction” to “concept-based inquiry”.

Traditional curriculum is organized by topics, for example in Grade 4 we study “Medieval Times” as part of the Social Studies curriculum in Ontario. Teachers generally design a wide variety of activities and experience around teaching students specific content around the topic. Typically, some students are interested in the facts, but generally after a few weeks or months of not applying this topic based knowledge they forget it because a lot of it is not relevant to the learners or not required for any further learning.

As part of the PYP, teachers collaboratively plan “concept-based inquiries”. What? A concept-based inquiry takes learning to the next level. Instead, students are engaged in provocations which lead them to question the world around them and search for deeper enduring understandings. Units are planned around a central idea that is an enduring understanding that is universal and timeless. They also can be applied to more than one time, place, or culture. Usually, central ideas are based around two concepts such as change and connection.

In January I would normally “instruct” a science unit based around the topic of “Habitats”. Instead, over the course of the workshop I examined what the enduring understandings that I wanted to have students inquiry into and developed a central idea (Life is sustained by the relationships between living things.) that I hope will lead to a deeper, richer understanding for students.

I have ordered a few books by H. Lynn Erickson to assist me on my road to concept based inquiry. If you have any other authors or titles that you recommend I would love to hear from you.