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.

  • Concept-based inquiry builds conceptual understanding.

  • Concept-based inquiry creates deeper transferable learning inviting students to make connections to current events helping them see the relevance of their learning.

  • It promotes student agency by inviting learners to construct meaning and articulate their own understanding.

  • A concept-based inquiry approach results in higher levels of engagement for both teachers and students.

  • Concept-based inquiry is a powerful vehicle for learning that promotes meaning and understanding, and challenges students to engage with significant ideas.

What Are Concepts

  • Concepts are powerful, broad and abstract organizing ideas that may be transdisciplinary or subject-based.

  • Concepts help to build understandings across, between and beyond subjects.

  • Key concepts provide a lens for conceptual understandings within a transdisciplinary unit of inquiry; related concepts provide a lens for conceptual understandings within a specific subject.

Concepts Help To:

    • explore the essence of a subject

    • add coherence to the curriculum

    • deepen disciplinary understanding

    • build the capacity to engage with complex ideas

    • build understandings across, between and beyond subjects

    • integrate and transfer learning to new contexts.

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

Key Concepts Poster

PYP Key Concepts.pdf
Source: Managebac

Key Concept Posters

Key Concept Posters.pdf

Concept-Driven Learning

(Click/Tap top view)

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.

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.

Click/Tap to Continue

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:

  • Meet the demands of rigorous academic standards

  • Use the Structure of Knowledge and Process when designing disciplinary units

  • Engage students in inquiry through inductive teaching

  • Identify conceptual lenses and craft quality generalizations

Download Resources