Boost learning and engagement through concepts before content

The importance of connecting prior learning to the new material being taught has always been highlighted in teaching colleges around the world for decades. it is not disputed that connecting what you want your children to learn with something that they already know is a cornerstone of learning itself.

Sadly, the reality is that significant exploration of the prior learning of students, particularly at the individual level is not something that takes up much time in many classrooms. Common phrases at the beginning of new topics or units might be along the lines of

  • Hey class remember when we did X a month ago, well now we’re going to do Y
  • In your previous school I’m sure that you looked at X, so now let’s look at Z
  • Hey class can anyone tell me some of the things you’ve done before … thanks … well now we’re going to do X.

At this point the new topic starts and explanations begin.

With overcrowded curricula, teachers feel pressured by time to get on with the next topic and so prior learning and exploring and making those important connections simply has to take a back seat to moving on to new material. this forms another example where schooling being “done to you” takes over from the natural and genuine process of learning.

A serious issue with failing to allow individuals learners to connect with the new material meaningfully is that it exacerbates the inequity in your classroom. The advantaged learners who already for various reasons have the self-esteem and self-worth to just get on regardless (with a sense that they are the type of people who can win the game of schooling) are then put at a further advantage against students who need to feel connected to the material to truly engage with it.

So this month I was particularly excited when introduced to the idea of concepts as both integral elements of all content material, the common reason for teaching the content in the first place and and equitable approaches to exploring prior learning rather than content at the start of all units. Concepts are equitable in that everyone can find a connection / their version of a concept, whereas knowledge is inequitable due to differing prior experiences and resourcing. Knowledge is also inequitable through students’ differing abilities to remember and process it. Starting all units with the underlying concepts within them is the equitable and a more engaging way to start learning and have studnets connect with your target content.

Before I give you some examples, the important understanding here is that digging out the underlying concepts within your target material and making that the first two or three lessons of your unit of learning allows individual learners to make connections with those concepts before you then apply the context of the material you want to teach. It is important to note that you are not necessarily losing teaching time because you would normally explore these concepts in the traditional knowledge based approach but halfway or towards the end of the unit. 

This concept approach to introduction and prior learning also does another important job of answering the common question of “why are we learning this?” After all it is often those underlying concepts that form the reason we teach the material in the first place. The concept-first approach answers the “why” before you start your new material.
Note: I’ve discussed starting with the “why” before

So here are some examples of teachers who start with knowledge and teachers who start with more equitable concepts that allow all students to connect with the learning before applying the context of the target knowledge. 

  • Teaching Shakespeare
    • Knowledge based English teacher
      • Today class we are going to start our unit on Romeo and Juliet. This is a play written by Shakespeare and some of you may have seen the film.
    • Concept based English teacher
      • Hey class I’m sure you’ve got your group of friends and know that there are other groups of friends that you like or dislike. Sometimes friends fallout never ever thought about why this happens. let’s spend some time thinking about our experiences with friends and when some groups fall out with other groups.
  • Teaching Measurement
    • Knowledge based maths teacher
      • Today we will be starting how are unit on measurement And so here is a quick test to look at what you already know and give you an idea of what we will be learning.
    • Concept based maths teacher
      • How good do you have to be at stuff? How fast do you need to run? How quick do you need to be able to think? Different people have different needs and so let’s do some work on how we measure things and make these judgements about them.
  • Teaching the Nazis
    • Knowledge based History teacher
      • Today class we are going to start our unit on the Second World War and learn about a man called Hitler who took control of Germany to carry out his very bad agenda. 
    • Concept based History teacher
      • I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but many people in America are angry and arguing. I’m sure you have heard some of this in your own family and communities. Let’s talk about what you’ve heard and why we think the country is arguing, what has made the country angry, and who we think is benefiting from this.
  • Teaching eco-systems
    • Knowledge based Science teacher
      • Today class we are starting our topic on eco-systems. As you can see from this picture, there are many organisms in any natural environment.
    • Concept based Science Teacher
      • Let’s explore the networks and systems that you are a part of. Whether you are a gamer, a sports person, or a performer, you are all part of systems that need you and also where you need them. What does it mean to be part of a system?

I hope in these examples you can see how I have simply shifted a future significant concept conversation from the middle or end of a unit to the beginning because it is the one thing that everyone in the room can connect with. Starting lessons and units with knowledge that students do or don’t have connection with leads to disengagement and inequity. 

Let’s give every child a fair introduction to knowledge by allowing them to connect with the underlying concepts they already have an understanding of. It is these concepts that will be transferable to new contexts.