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Implementing innovative teaching and learning approaches: Explore how educators at UWCSEA deliver a concept-based curriculum

Carla Marschall, Former Director of Teaching and Learning, UWCSEA East and Kate Woodford, Senior Manager,  Marketing and Business Development, UWCSEA

Every international school wants to educate their students to meet the challenges of the century they will live and work in. While it shares these goals, the UWCSEA difference is embedded in its mission: to educate individuals to embrace challenge and take responsibility for shaping a better world. But what models of teaching and learning can help students reach these goals?

Educators at UWCSEA are leading the way in implementing innovative strategies for teaching and learning.


Creating thinking classrooms

How did you learn at school? Did you focus on countless dates and facts to write that history paper? Did you memorise formulae in mathematics and hope the exam had a relevant question? How much did you remember after the exam? How much do you remember now?

At UWCSEA, students learn through the school’s concept-based curriculum, an approach to education that puts conceptual understanding and rigorous intellectual development at the forefront of their educational experience.

But what is a concept-based curriculum? What are the advantages of this approach? What does the teaching and learning look like? And how will this approach help prepare students for an unknown future?


What is a concept-based curriculum?

Carla Marschall, Head of Curriculum Development and Research at UWCSEA, along with leaders and subject specialists from both campuses, has been developing the UWCSEA  version of a concept-based curriculum. She defines the curriculum as one “that is organised around concepts and conceptual understandings."

In a concept-based curriculum, students are introduced to concepts and conceptual understandings as they engage in knowledge and skill learning. This creates a three-dimensional curriculum with intellectual depth that asks students to consider the “So what?” of their learning.


What is a concept? What is a conceptual understanding?

A concept is a mental construct drawn from a topic or a process that transfers across time, place and situation (Erickson, Lanning & French, 2017). A concept has the following features: it is timeless, universal, abstract, can be represented by one or two words, and its examples share common attributes. Transferability is also an important aspect of a concept and we’ll return to that idea shortly.

Marschall explains, "Concepts are all around us. They help us to categorize, reduce complexity and make sense of our world. Think about the idea of a family. There are many individual families, and each may look very different to another. Some may have one parent, some may have two parents, some may include extended family. But they all have aspects in common, such as working together for a common purpose. When we teach students concepts, we give them a powerful sense-making tool that allows them to understand new contexts they encounter."

Let’s look at an example.

In Humanities, our students may study inequality, broadly speaking, the uneven distribution of resources, rights or cultural access. Building students’ understanding of this concept as they encounter a case study, for example, indigenous rights in Brazil, sets the stage for deep learning and allows students to transfer their understanding. When students look at a new case study, for instance water access in sub-Saharan Africa, they are able to identify how inequality in this new situation looks similar or different. They are able to use factual knowledge to access the conceptual level of thinking.

By looking for connections across knowledge or skill learning, students form conceptual understandings, which are statements of relationship that link two or more concepts.


The power of transfer

The power of a concept-based curriculum is that it allows students to transfer their understanding to new contexts and situations. When students have a deep understanding of concepts, they are able to see beyond the facts of individual case studies, in order to be able to form generalisations about them. Each time students encounter a new context, they then build on and deepen their understandings around each concept.


Teaching to the conceptual level also enables UWCSEA to work flexibly with the curriculum. Because concepts transfer across situations, our teachers can invite students to explore a conceptual understanding by introducing examples that resonate best with the individual student. This ensures that each student can make sense of new circumstances now and in the future by building from their prior knowledge.

The power of a concept-based curriculum is that it allows students to transfer their understanding to new contexts and situations. When students have a deep understanding of concepts, they are able to see beyond the facts of individual case studies and form generalisations about them.

Stuart McAlpine, Director of Teaching and Learning at UWCSEA East explains, "Our goal is for all our students to be able to transfer their learning to new situations and contexts. Given the UWC mission of making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future, it is vital that students are able to recognise patterns and make sense of complexity. Ensuring that our students have developed conceptual understandings, in addition to their knowledge and skill learning, enables this."


Concept-based learning in action

What does concept-based learning look like in our classrooms? What role do students take in this?

Through a number of teaching strategies, students are supported in engaging critically with knowledge and skills to draw out big ideas, or conceptual understandings. Learning engagements teachers utilise include:

  • introduce questions that have relevance beyond that specific knowledge and skill that students are learning.
  • deepen students’ understanding of individual concepts, for example through sorting activities.
  • ask students to recognise and describe how concepts look in context, for instance by reading a text or having an outdoor experience.
  • invite students to form and justify their own understandings.
  • facilitate transfer, by requiring students to test their understandings in novel situations.

Student agency goes hand-in-hand with a concept-based approach. Through learning engagements, students ask questions, engage in dialogue, and analyse and synthesise ideas to form understandings. Diversity of thinking is promoted through discussion, giving students a platform to voice their unique ideas.

Example: Concept mapping in Grade 7 

Engaging in concept mapping, students reflect on significant concepts from the unit, such as systems, intended and unintended consequences, economic growth and waste. Using their unit learning to find relationships among concepts, students create a visual representation of their thinking. Using this teaching strategy, students connect concepts to form their own conceptual understandings. Students take an active role in this strategy, making decisions about the placement of concepts and the relationships that exist between them.

In this video, you can see and hear concept mapping in action as Grade 7 students on Dover Campus make sense of ideas at the end of a Humanities unit on Sustainable Development and Systems Thinking:

Learning knowledge and skill in a concept-based approach

Knowledge and skill learning plays an important role in the UWCSEA concept-based curriculum. By purposefully introducing knowledge and skill, students can reach the conceptual level of thinking and form their own understandings. Sometimes, memorisation is required so students can engage in higher-order thinking, such as looking for patterns or generalising. For example, by learning the multiplication tables, a child is able to form conceptual understandings about how to compute larger numbers efficiently. The key difference is in the purpose of the learning: instead of engaging in repetition and memorisation for its own sake, UWCSEA students use knowledge and skill learning to develop transferable conceptual understandings.

Ellie Alchin, Director of Teaching and Learning at UWCSEA Dover explains, "Knowledge and skills are very important in a concept-based curriculum. Students require a factual or a skills-based grounding in order to form understandings that are going to be accurate and transferable. If they lack this grounding because they haven’t learned enough content, or they haven’t acquired enough skills, then students will produce understandings which are inaccurate or overgeneralised."

The key difference is in the purpose of the learning: instead of engaging in repetition and memorisation for its own sake, UWCSEA students use knowledge and skill learning to develop transferable conceptual understandings.

Let’s take a look at this further within our Mathematics curriculum.

Ted Cowen, High School Vice Principal and Mathematics teacher on East Campus points out, "Mathematics is already a conceptual language made up of myriad concepts. Examples include the concept of function, or the notion of inputs and outputs."

However, teaching in Mathematics has traditionally focused on facts and algorithms, and on the procedural knowledge required to work out similar problems. Such traditional teaching has assumed that students understand mathematical concepts implicitly, rather than teaching them explicitly. Instead, we help students draw concepts from this knowledge and skill teaching and form transferable understandings. This allows them to engage in mathematics with intention and meaningfully problem solve in new contexts.


Advantages of the UWCSEA concept-based curriculum 

Life-long transfer

One of the strengths of the UWCSEA concept-based curriculum is that our teaching transcends time, place and situation. By organising learning around concepts and conceptual understandings, and building a strong foundation in knowledge and skills, we provide an intellectually rigorous and challenging educational experience for our students.

Highlighting the benefit to students, Marschall explains, "Information is growing exponentially and there’s no way that our students will be able to absorb all the information that is being produced. So with our curriculum, there’s an advantage for students to develop concepts and conceptual understandings that transfer. When they see new examples of those conceptual understandings, reflected in content created in 10 years or 20 years, they’ll be able to make sense of the world. That’s something that the learning of discrete facts or skills just can’t do."


The UWCSEA concept-based curriculum gives students agency and ownership over their thinking. Students take an active role in constructing and critiquing conceptual understandings with their peers. We encourage students to think about the implications of their learning and how this applies to the world around them. This empowers them to become independent, critical thinkers.

Better results

The capacity to understand concepts and to bring them together to form conceptual understandings gives students an immense cognitive advantage in their current and future studies.

The IB is moving towards concept-based approaches across subject areas. For instance, the IB Diploma exams in mathematics do not simply test knowledge, but ask students to think conceptually and demonstrate understanding in their exam responses.

Armed with conceptual understanding across the five elements of the UWCSEA Learning Programme, our students are better prepared for their transition to university and the world of work.


Education for peace and a sustainable future

If we want to educate individuals to embrace challenge and take responsibility for shaping a better world, then we need a flexible curriculum that teaches students to think deeply and to engage with the world beyond the classroom. The UWCSEA concept-based curriculum is helping students develop as changemakers who use their understanding to make a difference now and in the future.

Looking to learn more?

  • Discover more stories about UWCSEA's Concept-Based Curriculum in our UWCSEA Perspectives: Points of View newsroom.
  • Understand what our curriculum looks like in each of the five elements in our holistic Learning Programme.
  • Visit our curriculum site for more detailed information for educators and parents.
  • Dover Campus
  • East Campus
  • Teaching and Learning