What does concept-driven inquiry look like?

At a staff PD workshop this afternoon we attempted to answer this question. The impetus for the discussion is the changes being introduced to the MYP program, in the form of the ‘Next Chapter.’ Previously, concepts have been an integral part of the curriculum. Each unit plan is required to reference a “key concept” and other “related concepts.” For example in Humanities, which I teach, key concepts include “change” and “systems,” and related concepts include “ideology” and “conflict.” But with the introduction of the “Next Chapter,” the MYP has pushed concepts to the forefront of learning, and re-structured the unit planner to make this conceptual driven approach to teaching less ambiguous. 

The first hurdle to implement the concept driven approach is to understand what exactly is meant by a concept. In our PD workshop today we began by differentiating between a list of concepts and topics. For instance, we agreed that “Amazon” is a topic, while “cooperation” is a concept. We also agreed that what distinguishes a concept from a topic is that topics are based in a specific time and place, like the “American Revolution.” Concepts, on the other hand, transgress these boundaries, to be applied across time and space. Very well, so how to arrange a curriculum that develops an understanding of concepts?

To provide a concrete example (I should call it an “attempt” as there has been no seal of approval from the IBO) from a unit I recently completed for MYP 4 / Grade 9. The topic of the unit was the “Chinese Cultural Revolution.” Before learning of the changes being implemented by the Next Chapter, I would have said that this unit would cover concepts such as “conflict” “change” and “ideology.” I would also have linked these concepts to a larger question, such as ” how does ideological conflict cause change in society?.” As far as terminology is concerned, nothing has changed. The change for me is introduced when it comes to actually teaching the unit. Before, the concepts would have been mentioned often enough, but the focus would have been on the revolution itself. In this unit, however, I did something different.

From the first day of the unit, the key and related concepts were visible on the whiteboard. Each discussion was then linked to these concepts. For example, when we would discuss communists and capitalists, or nationalists and the bourgeoisie, or the red guards, it was all done with specific reference to “ideology.” I took extra care in pointing out when an ideology surfaced and what made it an ideology. The focus was therefore not so much on “communism” or “capitalism” as it would have been if we were doing a topic based approach. The focus was on the larger concept “ideology.” I applied this same strategy to “conflict” and “change.” When the red guards aimed to destroy the “four olds,” to usher in a new vision of China, I consistently referenced the fact that “change” was happening as a result of “ideological conflict.” To further reinforce these concepts I would do entry and exit tickets to the classroom based on questions like: identify at least one ideological conflict in the Cultural Revolution: “capitalism vs. communism,” free to go. We once played pictionary, where I would give kids tickets with different concepts on them and they would have to illustrate them–with reference to the Cultural Revolution, on the board, not using any words. 

By and large, I’m a fan of what the MYP is attempting to accomplish. It assumes that higher level thinking involves recognition of patterns and concepts across time and space. I agree. There have been accusations that the MYP sacrifices depth for breadth, that it is too broad, and therefore kids don’t develop “deeper understandings.” I disagree. As I see it, if a kid can name every invention and inventor of the Industrial Revolution, but not be able to recognize that a new form of the Industrial Revolution is taking place across the border in Shenzhen China, what good are those facts? Perhaps the regurgitation of facts might win the child a prize in a game show, but what is the real world application? At the same time, if a child has trouble recalling the exact dates and countries involved in the outbreak of World War One, but can see what’s happening today in the south China sea through the lens of such concepts as “nationalism,” “alliances,” and “resources,” do we say they lack “depth of understanding”? I refuse to believe it. 

To illustrate this “real-world application” notion of understanding, the students in my grade 9 Humanities will soon be required to identify a contemporary ideological conflict and discuss the changes this conflict is introducing to society. The “transference” of understanding from one place and time to another will have been illustrated, and I firmly believe the students will reap immense benefits, both academically and socially, from the process. 

I would be very curious to know how some other teachers–maths? language? science?– out there approach concept-driven inquiry. Please take a moment and share… Thanks in advance. 

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