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November 25, 2015
Vol. 11
No. 6

Personalization Requires a Shift from Topics to Concepts

In a planning session we once conducted with a science teacher, the teacher identified butterflies as the focus of her next unit of study. What is important for students to understand about butterflies?, we wanted to know. In the conversation that ensued, the teacher explained that it wasn't really butterflies that she would be teaching, but life cycles. She wanted the students to understand that there were similarities in the development of all living things, and she planned to use butterflies as an example. This teacher had made a crucial shift—from teaching topics to teaching concepts.
Standards-based curriculums can only be personalized when the learning outcomes are framed as robust, primary concepts (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2011). Although some teachers already teach at a conceptual level, others still plan instruction around topics, such as green plants, the Industrial Revolution, photosynthesis, percentages, or pollution. These are all important topics, but they are still only topics. As such, they don't contain within them the reason students should study them. When teachers translate topics into teachable concepts, they embed the rationale for engaging students in learning about that concept. For example, we can reframe the Industrial Revolution as the concept of human progress and ask, Who are the winners and losers of industrialization? We can broaden the topic of pollution into interdependence and ask, What relationships exist between humans and their environment?
Teaching that targets conceptually framed learning standards also provides multiple access points across the readiness continuum. For example, if we ask students, How does the study of a foreign language contribute to a respectful society? a student at a fairly concrete level of thinking might suggest that people can learn basic pleasantries—like please and thank you—in that language. A more sophisticated thinker might explore how different languages influence the ways people think and construct their values and beliefs. An even more advanced student might make connections between language development and culture.

But Which Concepts?

When we frame learning outcomes as robust conceptual understandings, student learning becomes enduring and transferable—but only if we choose rich concepts. As teachers shift the focus from topics to concepts in curriculum planning, we suggest they test the worthiness of proposed concepts against these filters (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005):
  • Does the concept have enduring value beyond the classroom? What value will this understanding have for a child in 20 years? If we struggle to answer this question, the concept or topic may not be worthy of student time. For example, why do we still teach the multiplication and division of fractions when few people ever use this skill?
  • Does the concept reside at the heart of the discipline? For social studies, a primary concept could be that history is an interpretative process, not just the study of past events.
  • Does the content require analysis? This is where the teacher can build in personalized rigor. If students are to translate isolated, fragmented information into personally meaningful knowledge, they must engage in higher-order thinking. Too often, the teacher does all the analysis and presents the results to students.
  • Does it have the potential to engage students? The concept needn't incorporate ready-made student interest. Teachers can increase its relevance by framing essential questions in deliberately provocative ways. A colleague of ours is fond of asking his economics students, When is trash not trash?
The challenge of personalizing learning is growing as classrooms become more culturally diverse. Students across many cultures will recognize primary concepts that have enduring value as worthy of their attention, whereas they may find many topics culturally bound or irrelevant. The Italian Renaissance as a topic may or may not have personal connections for students. If, however, we ask, What makes a renaissance? we are teaching at a conceptual level. We can draw on varied content (such as writing from Elizabethan England or the Harlem Renaissance) that may be more personally meaningful for students.
By teaching concepts that are inviting to students from many backgrounds, we throw lifelines to students confronting units that may be light years away from their immediate concerns. I think of Helaine, a 13-year-old student at the international school in Dar es Salaam. She had been raised in a remote Ugandan village (and spoke only her tribal language, not even the official language of Kiswahili). She had for years been a refugee in her own country, hiding from the horrors of Uganda's civil war. When she came to our school, Helaine refused to make eye contact. Reviewing dates and battles of the American Revolution didn't capture Helaine's attention, but exploring the concept sources of human conflict made lessons meaningful for her.
Guiding students to seek overarching concepts can also spark a student's unexpected interest. Bonnie had been a responsible student in an 8th grade class in an international school in Malaysia, but she had shown no hint of a passion for economics. But when Bonnie's advanced placement American history teacher assigned the class to compare the Federalist Papers and the New Deal, Bonnie made connections. She broke out of the bus line and ran over to ask her headmaster (who was supposed to know everything), "Did FDR read Hamilton's Federalist Papers? I mean, there's so many similarities between Hamilton's economic plan for the new nation and the New Deal … Maybe it's not so much about economics as it is understanding human nature."

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2011). How to teach now: Five keys to personalized learning in the global classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

William Powell has served as an international school educator for the past 30 years in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Malaysia. From 1991 to 1999, he served as chief executive officer of the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and from 2000 to 2006, he was headmaster of the International School of Kuala Lumpur.

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