Help children to grasp concepts so they can become better thinkers

A pupil in a classroom. [Getty Images]

Conceptual teaching and learning involve understanding key concepts that underlie a subject or discipline. It involves going beyond mere memorization of facts or procedures and instead, focusing on understanding how and why things work the way they do.

The conceptual learning model is a fresh approach that focuses on understanding concepts rather than just organising and distributing data. It is centred on ‘why’ and ‘how’; a much-needed change in the traditional educational system. Remember the saying “practice makes perfect”? That is the foundation of conceptual learning.

Concept-based instruction is driven by “big ideas” rather than subject-specific content. By leading students to consider the context in which they will use their understanding, concept-based learning brings “real world” meaning to content knowledge and skills. Students become critical thinkers which is essential to their ability to creatively solve problems in these unpredictable times.

Students must be able to apply their knowledge in the present condition they are experiencing. This is the reason conceptual learning is the way to fruitful and fulfilling education. At its centre, conceptual learning empowers students to utilize what is important or what they have just experienced to, more effectively, understand the new topics.

Whenever teachers and students have a strong understanding of the concepts, how they are inter-related with each other, and a couple of models of every idea, they start to build up their own exemplar that will enable them to reach resolutions about any problem statements all through their career.

Ways to drive teaching and learning conceptually

Start with the big picture: Help students understand how the different concepts they are learning are connected and how they fit into the larger picture. This can be achieved by providing clear learning objectives, outlining the scope of the course, and relating new concepts to previously learned ones.

Use inquiry-based teaching methods: Utilize higher order questions to move from the known (prior knowledge) to the unknown, encourage students to ask questions, explore ideas, and investigate solutions. Inquiry-based teaching methods promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for conceptual learning.

Foster a collaborative learning environment: Collaborative learning allows students to work together to build and share knowledge. It promotes communication and the exchange of ideas, which helps students see the connections between different concepts.

Use real-world examples: Provide examples that demonstrate how the concepts being taught are relevant to the real world. This can help students understand the practical applications of what they are learning.

Encourage reflection: Encourage students to reflect on what they have learned, how it connects to their prior knowledge, and how they can apply it in different situations. Reflection promotes deeper understanding and helps students develop a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Some challenges of teaching and learning conceptually

Difficulty in breaking down complex concepts: Some concepts may be difficult to explain or understand, which can make it challenging to teach them conceptually.

Limited time: Teaching and learning conceptually may take longer than traditional methods, which can be challenging when there are time constraints.

Students may struggle with abstract concepts: Some students may struggle with abstract concepts, which can make it difficult for them to understand the material.

To help students overcome these challenges, teachers can:

Provide clear explanations: Teachers can help students understand complex concepts by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable parts and providing clear explanations.

Use visual aids: Visual aids, such as diagrams, charts, and graphs, can help students visualize abstract concepts and make them easier to understand.

Provide opportunities for practice: Students may need multiple opportunities to practice applying new concepts and skills. Providing practice exercises and feedback can help students build their confidence and mastery of the material.

Designing the right curriculum

Identify key concepts: Start by identifying the key concepts that students need to understand in order to master the subject matter.

Organize concepts into a coherent structure: Organize the concepts into a coherent structure that shows how they are related and builds upon one another.

Provide opportunities for application: Provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned in real-world situations, such as projects or simulations.

Assess understanding: Use assessments that measure understanding of key concepts rather than rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. This can include performance tasks, essays, or projects.

Why conceptual teaching works

Concepts give shape and meaning to individual facts, allowing students a far deeper understanding of their significance. For example, teaching conceptually allows students to move well beyond the mere memorization of dates in history and encourages them to group events as concepts (for example, “root causes of the Civil War” or “results of the Industrial Revolution”).

Once students understand concepts, they can see relationships between different concepts in the history of the world for a richer understanding of the human experience; for example, they can draw connections between seemingly disparate events like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Gandhi’s hunger strikes, and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins.

Conceptual learning increases the understanding and retention of material: Conceptual learning promotes a deeper understanding of the subject matter, which makes it easier to retain the information over time.

It enhances critical thinking and problem-solving skills: By focusing on concepts and underlying principles, students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can be applied in a variety of situations.

Improved creativity and innovation: Conceptual learning encourages students to think creatively and come up with new and innovative solutions to problems.

With strong conceptual teaching skills, talented teachers create lessons in which everything taught is meaningful. There are no useless facts; rather, everything is connected. When students begin internalizing these frameworks as pre-schoolers, they learn to be highly logical thinkers who break down ideas into their parts and find connections between different parts of the curriculum.

Making these connections is the highest order of thinking. When children are encouraged to find and create patterns and organize concepts into a hierarchy, they are well on their way to the independent study and thinking habits needed for success in competitive high schools and colleges.

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