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Blog: Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Moving from Topics to Concepts

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

I visited Alexander Elementary recently, and was impressed to see learning targets on the board in every classroom I visited. It was obviously a collective attempt on the part of the staff to be clear with students about what they were to learn, and to improve their conceptual understanding of big ideas. I was also encouraged that teachers were making conscious effort to put the learning target in student friendly language, and just as important, anchor the student “I can” statement to the big idea from their curricular area.

It was a great reminder of one of the key features of our revised curriculum: that we are shifting students from understanding topics to understanding concepts. I think most of us understand that while it is interesting to study butterflies, what is more important is that students can appreciate that butterflies are a vehicle to understanding the concept of something like life cycles. You need not select butterflies per se (mosquitoes would do, if that’s your thing), but the important idea is that students interact with the topic in such a way as to appreciate and apply it to other knowledge. This is how we develop conceptual understanding.

So while it is important to select engaging topics such as plants, the Great Depression, the water cycle, or fractions, we must remember that the new curriculum contains a compelling reason about why students should study these topics (… and ‘because I said so’ is no longer good enough). This is the power of a concept or big idea. When we translate topics into concepts, we embed the rationale for engaging students in high level learning. For example, we can reframe the topic of WW II as the concept of conflict and ask, “Who are the winners and losers of human conflict?” We can broaden the topic of smog into the concept of interdependence and ask, “What relationships exist between humans and their environment?”

The power of the concept is that it allows the diverse array of learners in our classrooms to access it from multiple points. For example, with the question above, if we ask students, “Who are the winners and losers of human conflict?” a student at a concrete level of thinking might explain the countries that were victorious contrasted to those that were vanquished, or he/she might recount the impact it had on their grandparents during the war. A more sophisticated thinker might explore the notion of a how a country may be victorious militarily, yet can be defeated economically. An even more advanced student might make connections to the devastation of cultural warfare. A student who recently immigrated to the classroom from Syria will respond to that question at yet another level. Conceptual thinking opens the door to differentiated learning.

Big thanks to the Alexander staff for working together to engage your students by actively using learning targets and relating them to key concepts!


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

By Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.