Covid has opened up new possibilities for concept-driven learning

Now is the time to teach sustainability in new ways that produce ‘educated optimists’

Educator and Consultant, Liberated Learning

Most of the earliest COVID-19 cases can likely be traced to a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan selling wild animals. The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted our relationship with the natural world. The tragic and needless loss of biodiversity and the threat of extinction of potentially a billion species is alarming. Sir David Attenborough closed ‘Extinction: the facts’ with an optimistic tone, “what happens next is up to every one of us”. What could this mean for Education and the Curriculum?

Subject disciplines such as Geography may traditionally ‘cover’ some of the issues raised in the BBC documentary. For example, AQA GCSE Geography mandates discrete units on Climate Change, Ecosystems – leading to content on Tropical Rainforest deforestation and desertification. Curriculum, lessons and pedagogies can often be one dimensional, using a know-do approach to instruction. A Geography lesson may include the cause of climate change in one lesson, jump to the impacts in the next and there we end. 

This shallow, sequential and assessment orientated approach to curriculum does not lend itself to a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of our world. For today’s learners to have a deeper understanding of how the world works there must be a three dimensional approach, facilitating a deeper exploration and understanding of relationships at ever increasing levels of scale. One route we can take to help foster this is taking an interdisciplinary approach (IDL), weaving together knowledge from the disciplines in a unified study to recognise complexity, and enable a deeper understanding. We argue that we must take this further, drawing interdisciplinary threads together to a central anchor point, that of Concepts.

What is a concept?

The Concept-driven approach to curriculum is epitomised by the programmes of the International Baccalaureate, yet the approach does not call for the establishment of unifying Concepts, as we advocate. We recognise that a Concept is ‘An organizing idea/mental construct’ abiding by 6 principles:

  1. Timeless
  2. Universal
  3. Abstract 
  4. Represented by 1 word 
  5. Not a verb
  6. Examples share common attributes.

Concepts exist at different levels of scale, with Macro Concepts being the broadest, with micro and meso concepts nested within the Macro. When Nested concepts are applied to curriculum design they may represent, 

  • Substantive concepts: these are part of the ‘substance’ or content knowledge in a subject.
  • Second-order concepts: these shape the key questions asked in a subject and organise the subject knowledge. 
  • Threshold concepts: once understood, modifies learners’ understanding of a particular field and helps them to make progress.

Building a concept based curriculum

So one way of understanding complexity in the natural world could be to begin with the Macro Concept of ‘Systems’. We can begin to think across the academic disciplines so that information, processes and concepts nested within Geography, the sciences, economics, politics and engineering for example can be connected. Identified and taught nested concepts become embedded in schema; facts and content become contextualised and purposeful. The devastating local and global impacts of deforestation can be understood through systemic understanding. Nutrient cycling and hydrological systems must be understood not within stand alone topics but cleverly integrated and connected within the umbrella problem and Concept. Further understanding is achieved by explicitly connecting the Concept of Systems to the human complexities of global trade, food prices and uneven wealth distribution.

A Concept and IDL approach can create space within a crowded curriculum for a more expansive curriculum offer. One where young people are given opportunities to take responsibility and action. The rapid move to online learning is making us think about the how and where of learning. Flipped approaches to knowledge acquisition are one area where capacity is created that can create time to generate more compelling in-person learning. We must push further and ask the question of what and why and how do we facilitate this?

Extinctions don’t just happen because of events far away from us, they are inextricably linked to how we behave and to global systems in which we partake. For young people to truly care about what is happening in the world we need them to have an educated optimism and create the learning conditions to allow them to do so. This can be achieved to a large extent by young people partaking in processes of enquiry; applying rigorous concept based interdisciplinary learning to real world problems; working on learning expeditions or projects within their localities; and reflecting on the effectiveness of individual and collective actions as part of an integrated curriculum model.

Coronavirus has made us all rethink the purpose of education. An opportunity exists to open up conversations about sustainable development; the value of academic disciplines and interdisciplinarity; natural and human systems thinking; and real world integration of knowledge and skills. Understanding the natural world, sustainable futures and encouraging the agency to enact positive change should be at the heart of modern curriculum design. We believe that this is achieved through a Concept-driven and IDL approach, as such we have developed a curriculum and lesson planning approach which we freely share here

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