Concept-Based Inquiry

Importance of Concept-Based Inquiry

Concept-Based Inquiry: Summary

A concept is a “big idea”—a principle or notion that is enduring and is not constrained by a particular origin, subject matter or place in time (Erickson 2008). Concepts represent ideas that are broad, abstract, timeless and universal. Concepts add depth and rigour in student thinking to the traditional “two-dimensional” curriculum consisting of facts and skills. Concepts place no limits on breadth of knowledge or on depth of understanding, and therefore are accessible to every student.

What Are Concepts

Concepts Help To:

Source: Professional learning International |

What is Concept-Based Inquiry?

Concept-Based Inquiry brings together two distinct pedagogical practices; Inquiry-Based Learning and Concept-Based Learning. Inquiry-based learning has a focus on the use of active questions to drive learning. Students are invited to take an active role in both posing and answering questions as they construct meaning.

When we pair this with Concept-Based Learning, those questions are designed to focus on transferable understandings that help students to make sense of their learning. This approach helps students to see patterns, make connections, and ultimately, are able to apply their learning beyond the context of the unit. This is what we all want for our students at the end of the day!

Concept-Based Inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning that can be applied to any disciplinary or interdisciplinary curriculum K-12. By engaging students as thinkers, we foster student agency, build conceptual understanding, and promote learning transfer.

Source: Professional Learning International Blog
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Source: Professional Learning International Blog
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Source: IGE: Andrea Muller and Tania Lattanzio

The Transformative Power of Concept-Based Inquiry

[Rachel French]

Run Time: 1:35:18 - Aug, 2023
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This episode is from Toddle's "School Leadership Project"

What You Will Learn

This podcast is a perfect primer for both teachers and leaders who want to understand the thinking behind developing meaningful and relevant concept-based units of inquiry.

In the podcast, Rachel French delves into the crucial aspects of effective concept-based inquiry. She underscores the significance of fostering student curiosity through acknowledging and nurturing their questions. Concepts' role in teaching, along with the utility of case studies for enhanced comprehension, takes center stage. Seeking mentors, incorporating essential ideas into curriculum planning, and utilizing diverse understandings within a study unit emerge as essential practices. 

Rachel emphasizes connecting ideas across disciplines meaningfully, cautioning against forced integration. Notably, she examines levels of understanding drawn from texts and advocates for teaching diverse skills to grasp content comprehensively.

The podcast touches on comprehending rules across disciplines, valuing evidence and persistence for building understanding, and nurturing open-mindedness through case studies. Techniques like the four corner debate are proposed, as is the balance between structured planning and adaptive teaching. The guidance of students' case study choices, crafting meaningful and rigorous inquiry units, and expressing gratitude are also discussed. 

Overall, the video encapsulates pivotal strategies for effective inquiry-based learning implementation, underscoring the fostering of curiosity, strategic planning, interdisciplinary connections, and varied skill development.

** The book Rachel mentioned in the podcast: Concept-Based Inquiry in Action: Strategies to Promote Transferable Understanding

Key Ideas

Topics vs Concepts

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Source: Inovative Global Education

Principles of Planning

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Source: Inovative Global Education

Why Teach Conceptually

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Source: Inovative Global Education

Criteria for Conceptual Learning

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Source: Inovative Global Education

Key Concept Poster

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Source: Cindy Blackburn's Twitter Page & Toddle

Key Concept Poster

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Source: Key Concepts Poster from Managebac

Beginners Guide to PYP Concepts

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Beginner’s Guide to Concepts

Beginner’s Guide to Key Concepts

Beginner’s Guide to Related Concepts

Putting Concepts Together: Lines of Inquiry

Key Concept Question Scaffolds Using Solo Taxonomy

Source: Google Docs: Differentiated Thinking Tools and Strategies (Public).doc 
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Source: Michael Hughes @HughesT0KY0, Seisen International School, Tokyo. Updated March 2019.

Demystify Related Concepts to Lead Inquiry in Your Classrooms!

Related concepts are often treated as mystical elements of the PYP. Most PYP educators wonder where Related Concepts come from and how to use them! Experienced PYP educator and workshop leader, Maggie Hos-McGrane unpacks Related Concepts with strategies and lists that will become your go-to. Use this tool during collaborative meetings, workshops, and planning sessions to come to a shared understanding of these building blocks aka Related Concepts.

Strategies to unpack Related Concepts:

Click/Tap image to view/download 26-page document Source: Toddle

Concept-Driven Learning

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This post is an excerpt from a post entitled “Don’t lock me into 8 key concepts” by Shannon O’Dwyer. The full post explains concepts in a nutshell and why concept-driven teaching is both easy and hard. This excerpt provides an insight into how teachers can make it happen.

Concepts in a Nutshell

Concepts are over-arching mental constructs that students need to make sense of the content we teach. Conceptual understanding enables students to apply facts and skills to the world around them. By starting with concepts, we create a curriculum that’s worthy of our students’ time and effort. The concepts that drive the PYP are timeless (factual examples change, but not the core understanding), universal (so students can apply understandings across cultures, situations and disciplines) and abstract (so students engage in higher order thinking to grapple with central ideas).

By helping students achieve conceptual understanding, we ensure that they can take facts and skills, and do something with them beyond this moment, this lesson and this classroom. I have seen plenty of students who can accurately convert between metres & centimetres but are unable to choose an appropriate length of skipping rope for a 3-person playground game. These students had mastered a mathematical skill in isolation, but not yet developed a conceptual understanding of length.

Why Concept-Driven Teaching is Hard

It’s just so messy. Concept-driven learning is an iterative process of constantly pulling apart ideas, putting them back together, re-applying them to different situations, finding ways to correct misconceptions and enabling each child to make meaning in their own way. It would be a lot easier to say, “Here’s what you need to know, practise that, now you get a sticker.”  The problem is that you’d have to add, “Good luck applying that to your life”. Factual knowledge is easy to teach because it is simple, procedural and locked in situ. But unless your students intend to live forever in their 4th Grade classroom, that knowledge is utterly useless to them.

“How Can I Make it Happen?”


Use teacher and student questions as a springboard for deep, conceptual dialogue. Sort, unpack and challenge students’ questions. Discuss open vs. closed questions, abstract vs. concrete questions, fat vs. thin questions (ie 1 answer or many). Keep asking probing questions (such as How do you know..?/reflection) to prevent shallow understanding.

Problematic Knowledge

Design resources and situations that are problematic. Perhaps the facts do not add up, or there are pieces of information missing. This challenges students to search for connections, inferences and transference to make sense of the inquiry. Anything that is non-linear, with multiple solutions and multiple interpretations helps our students build the flexibility of thinking to grapple with complexity, change and abstraction.


Every day! Make sure you devote enough time for students to actually do the learning and construct the understanding. They need ample time for wondering, trying, tinkering, playing, researching and coming to conclusions. Don’t step away. Be a participant who says, “Why did you…?”, “What would happen if…?”


Work with single-subject teachers to develop integrated thinking. Students should take their understandings from class to class, exploring concepts through different content and perspectives (eg symphony orchestras and bus timetables both build an understanding of systems). Try to keep  concepts at the core of your planning meetings, to avoid creating shallow, thematic units. Avoid throwing together “linked activities”. If the students are studying Ancient Greece, don’t immediately say, “Let’s make pots!”. Perhaps the most important concept is “legacies” and students investigate the influence of the golden ratio on both Art and Mathematics. While studying natural disasters, let students make paper mache volcanoes at home. In class, explore the concept of “impact” on geography, individual lives and communities. How do artists help communities remember and heal after a natural disaster?”

Shannon is a PYP educator, whose passions include curriculum design, literacy and ESOL practices, enrichment and technology integration. Shannon loves working in PYP classrooms, where each day is filled with the questions, problems and discoveries of young minds. She blogs at and tweets @S_ODwyer.

Conceptual Understanding & Learning Transfer

Run Time 2:43 - Feb 1, 2017

Towards Concept-Based Teaching & Learning

Run Time 2:05 - Dec 19, 2018

Inside the Concept-Based Inquiry Classroom

Podcast: Concept-Based Curriculum

Podcast - Concept-Based Curriculum.m4a
Created by RACHEL FRENCH FRENCHSource: Professional Learning International - 59.24- Feb 9, 2018

What role do concepts play in your classroom and curriculum? How can a concept-based approach to curriculum and instruction help students to make connections and construct deep and meaningful understandings?

Rachel French is the co-author of the recently released Concept-Based Inquiry in Action, and Concept-Based Curriculum & Instruction for the Thinking Classroom and Angeline Aow is an educational leader and consultant.

This episode discusses the developing role of concept-based curriculum and instruction and explores why and how this approach is so valuable for teaching and learning.

Taking the Complexity out of Concepts

by: Andrea Muller, Tania Lattanzio

Taking the Complexity out of Concepts is a practical resource designed by Innovative Global Education (IGE) to assist educators in making the shift from a content-based curriculum to a conceptual curriculum. The authors’ aim is to do what the title suggests, taking the complexity out of concepts in learning by providing practical strategies and ideas for teachers that can be implemented in any educational setting. 

Click/Tap to Continue ISBN-13 :‎978-1760013844 / Hawker Brownlow Education (December 4, 2015) / 92 pages

To meet the demand for better professional learning materials devoted to conceptual learning, IGE has formulated the IGE Model for Formulating Conceptual Understandings and the three-stage IGE Template for Planning Conceptual Learning. In support of these pivotal resources, Taking the Complexity out of Concepts also includes a number of case studies adapted from IGE’s professional learning work with schools to serve as exemplars of how real-life educators are actually using the resources in their classrooms. Although the IGE approach to conceptual learning can be used with any syllabus, the case studies given in this book derive from the Australian Curriculum. Teaching though concepts is the best way to ensure coherency and transferability of learning. In making our method available through this book, IGE hopes that many more teachers and other educators will be able to avoid the complexities and harness the many benefits of conceptual learning.

Innovative Global Education Website

Concept-Based Inquiry in Action

by: Carla Marschall & Rachel French

Create a thinking classroom that helps students move from the factual to the conceptual 

Concept-Based Inquiry is a framework for inquiry that promotes deep understanding. The key is using guiding questions to help students inquire into concepts and the relationships between them. 

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Concept-Based Inquiry in Action provides teachers with the tools and resources necessary to organize and focus student learning around concepts and conceptual relationships that support the transfer of understanding. Step by step, the authors lead both new and experienced educators to implement teaching strategies that support the realization of inquiry-based learning for understanding in any K–12 classroom.

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom

By: H. Lynn Erickson, Lois A. Lanning, Rachel French

Develop students’ critical thinking, abstract reasoning, and creative learning skills with concept-based teaching! Take learning beyond the facts with a teaching approach that develops conceptual thinking and problem-solving skills.

 A Concept-Based curriculum recaptures students’ innate curiosity about the world and provides the thrilling feeling of using one’s mind well. Concept-Based teachers will learn how to:

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