Concept-based lesson planning: from intent to implementation

I haven’t written a real lesson plan in years — except when I’ve had to for the sake of inspection or evaluation. After teaching for so many years, lesson plans become brief scribbles in a planner or bullet points on a digital file — or just mental notes about what to “cover” or “do” day to day. But as part of the Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer Certification Institute, delivered by Professional Learning International, I’ve recently had to develop concept-based lesson plans to demonstrate my understanding of how to move from intent (the written curriculum) to implementation (the taught curriculum). I never thought I would say this, but the process of writing lesson plans — often considered a burdensome task — has really recalibrated my teaching practice. In a sense, it’s getting back to the basics (what is important at the classroom level?), but with the added dimension that concept-based curriculum and instruction brings to the experience. As MYP teachers, we could so easily spend all of our time and energy crafting beautiful units, but that does not guarantee concept-based learning is taking place.

I can’t share the full lesson plans I’ve been working on here because they have been submitted as part of the certification process, but I can share the slides from one of my recent lessons. A couple of points of note: first, this particular lesson was delivered remotely, so it was not as interactive as it might have been in a physical classroom environment without COVID restrictions. Second, these are not the slides from the original lesson; like any good reflective practitioner, I revised them after seeing what worked and what didn’t. The slides don’t capture everything from the lesson (e.g., the classroom discourse is obviously missing), but they should give a good idea of the lesson content and guiding questions I used to structure it; for reference, you can read this post about the unit the lesson comes from.

I can share my key reflections on the lesson-planning experience:

1) A “lesson” isn’t necessarily confined to a class period. A lesson can take as long or as short as is needed to reach the learning goal (in this case, an understanding of the target generalisation).

2) The power of intentional, deep questioning is sooo underrated. I used to front load the unit guiding questions (tied to the statement of inquiry, which got repetitive after a few lessons) at the beginning of the unit, asking students to keep them in the back of their minds as we went through the unit because we would revisit them later on. We almost never did. Now, I use each generalisation’s guiding questions to structure my lessons, and there is no front loading. I drop them in at strategic points throughout the lesson to provoke student thinking and guide inquiry, and my learning experiences are intentionally designed around those questions. The purpose of those questions is to inductively lead students towards a conceptual understanding, not to deductively outline the lesson content. Well-crafted questions scaffold student learning — and help me as a teacher to structure the lesson.

*A further note on questioning: It can be tempting to start a lesson with factual questions, charting a nice linear path to conceptual and debatable questions, and I definitely did this in the first drafts of my lessons. However, sometimes beginning with a debatable question can provide an engaging hook for students. Or leading with a conceptual question might engage the brain and start to nudge students towards the learning goal (the conceptual understanding; more on that below). I realised as I was planning that as long as I let the target generalisation frame the whole lesson, I could be flexible with the sequencing of the parts.

3) Direct instruction does still have a place in a concept-based lesson, but it should not be the dominant form of delivery. In the Macbeth lesson above, we did have to pause and zoom in on non-verbal communication techniques. Some of these were common knowledge; others (like kinesthetics or proxemics), not so much. I had to equip students with a certain amount of knowledge before they could move forward and analyse how and to what effect those techniques were used in different performances. It’s all too easy to fall back on direct instruction because it makes us feel in control — and as a self-confessed control freak, this has been the most difficult aspect of concept-based teaching to embrace. But we have to trust our students and allow them to show us what they are capable of. We shouldn’t be doing the thinking for them.

4) Finally, learning objectives. It goes against my teaching style to write a learning objective on the board and ask students to copy it down in their exercise books. Sadly, this is common practice in many UK schools. I’ve realised that the issue I have with this practice is that it is inauthentic; it doesn’t provide students with the why. That is because a traditional learning objective is often treated as an end point, instead of a means to an end. In a concept-based classroom, conceptual understanding is the end goal (the why), and learning experiences are purposeful means of developing that understanding.

The experience of fleshing out concept-based lesson plans has certainly added to my cognitive load. In all honesty, I don’t think writing full lesson plans is necessarily sustainable on a full teaching timetable, but having the mental framework to help guide my instructional practice has allowed me to be more intentional — and reflective — in the thinking and planning process. Instead of setting off with a vague destination in mind and filling the lesson with activities to keep students busy as a means of addressing prescribed standards (although those will of course be interwoven throughout the lesson), I’ve been working to keep students engaged as they works towards an understanding of x, y or z. It’s a journey that will likely never really end as I continue to learn and reflect and refine — and repeat.

I highly recommend Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer by Lois Lanning and Tiffanee Brown for anyone (not just literacy teachers) who is interested in practical steps to bridge the gap between the written and taught concept-based curriculum. And I am eagerly anticipating Julie Stern and company’s Learning That Transfers (and so should you!), which is sure to add a whole new layer to concept-based instruction.

Why the IB framework is not a roadmap to conceptual understanding

Lockdown 3.0: As we start our second period of full remote learning (please, God, let this be the last!), I am reflecting more and more on the value of concept-based learning. And the conclusion I have come to is this: the IB curriculum framework (PYP, MYP or DP) does not guarantee conceptual understanding. For many years, I thought that, just by nature of the fact that I was teaching the IB, I was a concept-based teacher. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Because even if the written curriculum is concept-based, that does not mean that the pedagogy is. A well-intentioned 3-Dimensional curriculum can too easily fall back into a 2-Dimensional mode of delivery. (This is probably especially true in a remote context, when often we are just trying to find activities to keep students busy.) And that has a further knock-on effect: if we aren’t supporting the written curriculum with concept-based instruction, then how can we possibly assess students’ conceptual understandings?

Conceptual teaching — and conceptual learning — is a mindset. It involves intellectual effort on our part to lead students on a journey to construct their own understandings. It’s not enough to expect this conceptual learning to happen because it is written in the unit planner; we have to intentionally create opportunities for students to develop conceptual understandings. And if we are only focusing on the MYP statement of inquiry (which is often generic in nature) as our main vehicle for conceptual understanding, then we are not maximising opportunities to develop disciplinary depth and breadth of understanding.

To really get to the heart of the MYP (or DP) curriculum, we need to look at the philosophy(ies) that underpin it. I first stumbled upon Lynn Erickson’s work when the MYP Next Chapter came out. As I read through the subject guides, I kept seeing her name pop up in reference lists. Who was she, I wondered, and why hadn’t I heard about her? So I started my own inquiry and realised that this (Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction) was where the real meat was, not the subject guides themselves. The subject guides merely lay out a framework. And if a framework is all you ever work with, using the concepts as afterthoughts but delivering the content in the same way as you always have, you aren’t utilising CBCI to its full potential. If you are an IB teacher and you haven’t already read the work of Erickson and Lois Lanning, you owe it to yourself and your students to do so. (The influential/inspirational work of Rachel French, Tiffanee Brown and Julie Stern has also informed and guided my exploration of concept-based pedagogy, and they are worth checking out.)

Even though I have been involved on many different levels with IB curriculum and assessment for 12 years, I am really in the beginning stages of my concept-based teaching journey. I plan to share more in the weeks and months to come, including resources I am developing for my classroom. I hate to think of all of the missed opportunities in my first decade of IB teaching, but I suppose I shouldn’t dwell on negatives. As reflective practitioners, there is always the opportunity to deepen our own understanding and aim for better. It’s never too late to amplify one’s practice.