By Carla Marschall

Recently I was sitting with my Grade 1 team, getting ready to plan their Body Systems unit with them. In previous years, the team felt they introduced too many systems to their 6-year-olds. As a result, the unit felt disjointed, a bit hodgepodge and was organized around activities instead of concepts. Wanting to shift away from this, we began our conversation by digging deeply into the conceptual understandings of the unit. This included unpicking the most significant concepts that students would need to understand in order to generalize about body systems and human health later in the unit. Some of these included: system, part, function, health, body system and interdependence.

Engaging in this high-level thinking before starting formal unit planning drastically changed the trajectory of the unit. Instead of jumping into body systems research at the beginning of the unit, we invited students to take part in conceptual play to understand the concept of system. Tinkering with marble run, making Rube Goldberg machines and laying out train tracks, students considered if what they were making was or was not a system. This led to the development of collective criteria for a system: 1. It has a job (function), 2. Has parts, 3. The parts connect, and 4. If one part if missing, the system does not work. Being intentional about concept formation activities at the beginning of the unit meant students were able to better synthesize and understand body systems when they were addressed in class and independent research. This approach also meant that concepts drove the unit, not activities.

In workshops, we are often asked by teachers how to get started with planning for Concept-Based Inquiry. While planning steps can help us keep a number of important aspects in mind, we recommend making sure you closely examine your conceptual understandings! By pulling these apart and seeing the concepts that make them up, we can plan more intentionally and ensure that concept formation activities, which ground conceptual thinking, take place in a unit. Here are a few reflective prompts to consider individually or as a teaching team:

What Concepts Make Up the Conceptual Understandings?

Pulling apart unit conceptual understandings to locate significant concepts is definitely a planning pre-requisite! If we aren’t sure which concepts are important to understand in the unit, we are unable to effectively plan concept formation tasks that take place at the beginning and throughout the unit. How do we analyze a conceptual understanding? Let’s look at one in detail:

Conceptual understanding: The rotation and revolution of a planet changes the visibility of other planetary bodies.

This conceptual understanding for a unit on the Solar System is timeless and universal, thus Earth is not named specifically, but can be inferred from the understanding. All concepts in the understanding are written as nouns. Additionally, some concepts can be inferred from the presence of a verb. Collectively, we call this set of concepts the driving concepts of a unit. Let’s bold each concept in the understanding:

Conceptual understanding: The rotation and revolution of a planet changes the visibility of other planetary bodies.

Explicit Concepts: Rotation, revolution, planet, visibility, planetary body.

We may choose to add some concepts to this list, such as change (which is present as a verb), motion (which is a broader concept than rotation and revolution) and solar system (which is the larger system where this occurs). So:

Driving Concepts: Rotation, revolution, motion, planet, visibility, planetary body, change, solar system.

Now that we have our concepts, we can construct our conceptual questions and make choices about which concepts should be introduced earlier or later in the unit, essentially making our areas of the inquiry. Identifying these concepts also allows us to effectively pre-assess student understanding to identify any prior knowledge or possible misconceptions they may hold.

In What Order Might Concepts be Introduced?

A key benefit of writing out the driving concepts of a unit is being able to strategically order and introduce concepts. This may be done by ordering the unit’s conceptual questions. Some concepts are more abstract than others, making them more challenging to understand without lots of practical examples and non-examples. Likewise, some concepts are precursors to others and students would benefit from understanding them first, before uncovering others.

In our Solar System unit, we may introduce the conceptual questions in this order (with concepts bolded):

  1. How is a solar system organized and what types of planetary bodies are commonly found within one?
  2. How and why do planets orbit around a sun?
  3. How does the movement (rotation and revolution) of a planet change the way other planetary bodies look?

Thinking of each of these conceptual questions as areas of inquiry, we start by understanding the various objects in a solar system, e.g. sun, planets, moons, and then move to consider their movement. Lastly, we put the pieces together and think about how the movement of a planet changes how constellations, other planets or the moon may look. For this reason, we may begin our inquiry by considering how a solar system is organized, and what objects, e.g. planets, moons, etc. lie within the gravitational pull of the sun. Ordering our conceptual questions in this way, allows us to plan concept formation strategies to highlight significant concepts in each area of inquiry.

How Will We Know if Students Understand These Concepts?

Of course, throughout any Concept-Based Inquiry unit, we want to ensure that students have developed a deep understanding of individual concepts. This provides an important foundation for when students generalize, or articulate their own conceptual understandings, later in a unit. As practitioners, this means we must assess students’ understanding of these concepts along the way. When we engage students in concept formation strategies, we both scaffold an understanding of concepts but also gather a wealth of assessment data to determine whether or not they have truly understood. Here are some important criteria to consider, organized as a checklist for you to use in a unit:

Checklist: Assessing Concept Formation

Can the student…
Provide an accurate personal definition for the concept?
Sort new examples and non-examples as being illustrative of the concept?
Name the attributes of the concept that are always present, e.g. mammals are warm-blooded?
Name the attributes of the concept that are sometimes present, e.g. mammals may only eat plants but may also only eat meat?
Compare the concept to other concepts, e.g. how mammals are similar or different to birds?


    2 replies to "The Importance of Concept Formation"

    • admin Jon

      Thank you for sharing this wonderfully articulated post Carla. It certainly adds clarity and provides a scaffold. A unit of inquiry will only be rich if personally significant to the learner and conceptually driven. We creators if these units must take the time to do this and endeavour to identify the essential questions.

    • admin Anjali Akware

      Scaffolding of the concept very well done

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