Why Teach Conceptually?

Dear Colleague,

We have often discussed our disconcertion over how students do not remember what they learned last year…or the last unit we taught…or even last week. Recently, I have been learning about teaching for understanding and discovering why this memory lapse in our students may be so.

Teaching often happens in a two-dimensional classroom, where the objectives for the learner include factual content and processes and skills. In other words, we have a list of things we want the students to know and do. According to Lynn Erickson, this low-level learning is coverage-centered, intellectually shallow, nontransferable, and fails to meet 21st century demands. On the other hand, three-dimensional learning adds the dimension of understanding concepts, principles, and generalizations. We want students not only to know and do, but to understand. This makes learning idea-centered, encourages intellectual depth, allows concept and generalization transfer, and develops 21st century readiness.

In the two-dimensional classroom, the teacher is driven to cover the curriculum. This results in an inch deep and a mile wide coverage. The learner is expected to keep up. In contrast, the three-dimensional classroom, ideas are center stage. Facts, vocabulary, and procedures are not an end, but only a foundation to understanding deep, conceptual, big ideas. Learning multiplies and adds value to future learning. Ideas are transferable. The learner is active and productive.

The two-dimensional classroom is intellectually shallow. Intelligence is discouraged, and conformity is encouraged. In the three-dimensional classroom, a conceptual lens is required, which produces intellectual depth in thinking and understanding.

In the two-dimensional classroom, facts are not transferable, but locked in time, place or situation. Even facts learned in like subjects do not transfer from course to course or year to year. Connections are not made among related facts learned in math, science, and social studies even the same year. In the three-dimensional classroom, by comparison, concept learning allows generalization and concept transfer. Therefore, the big ideas and subsequent connections and patterns are readily accessible between school subjects and across grade levels.

Two-dimensional classrooms fail to meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century. Facts and procedures can easily be searched for on the Internet. Whereas, the intellect to handle a world of increasing complexity and accelerated change can come only in the three-dimensional classroom where the bigger ideas are taught and understood.

In addition, I would like to suggest that two- and three-dimensional instruction has another aspect of meaning. In a two-dimensional classroom, the teacher drives instruction. The two dimensions could be considered the teacher and the curriculum. The student is the passive recipient of knowledge, a vessel to be filled. Conversely, three-dimensional instruction must be student-centered. The student, added to teacher and curriculum, is the third and key dimension, giving depth and structure to the classroom culture and learning environment. To really teach understanding, the conversations must be rich and unhurried, and involve the student as a key player, not a passive receptacle. The students and teacher become learners together to accomplish understanding in this three-dimensional classroom.

So, friend, back to those conversations of exasperation we’ve had around the lunch table. As more of us teachers adopt this three-dimensional teaching model, our students will grow intellectually, and we will finally see the transfer of learning and connections we long to see.


ASSIGNMENT: Describe why you would recommend to a colleague that they should implement conceptual teaching and learning in their classroom. Include the benefits for students in your description as well as the differences between a two-dimensional and three-dimensional classroom.

Understanding Understanding

Teaching for understanding is the essence of teaching. Teacher-directed education does not necessarily produce learning, for learning, as John Holt puts it, is a product of the activity of learners. Therefore, teachers guide students to gain the end understandings through exploring, conjecturing, and constructing their own learning.

ASSIGNMENT: The final step for this module is to write a one-paragraph (50 words or less) summary of what you believe it means to understand and to teach for understanding after completing Activities 1-3.