Choosing Your Rut Carefully

Posted 10/12/2018

After several days of hard rain on the dirt tracks of rural Mississippi, a weary traveller drove up to my great grandfather's house in Ovett to ask for directions to the nearest town. Papa O’Donnell looked down at the deeply rutted track and indicated a direction, saying, ‘Choose your rut carefully – you'll be in it for the next 20 miles.’ Down home truisms like this are common in families and extend to all kinds of life scenarios – education among them. Here is one route, or ‘rut’ if you will, that has been shown to increase student engagement, motivation, and innovation: Concept-Based Enquiry.

Concept-Based Units of Enquiry

Concept-based enquiry involves students in more than just ‘doing’ activities and tasks; it is about students knowing and understanding why they are using various skills, strategies, and processes in their learning. As the name suggests, concept-based enquiry is all about using a conceptual lens on a topic so that students can discover for themselves the Big Ideas (what’s at stake in a unit) that are transferable from context to context, making learning more authentic and memorable and the learner more critical and innovative. Based on an understanding of how the brain processes factual, procedural, and conceptual (organising ideas) knowledge, the curriculum is re-imagined in order to promote reflective and transferable knowledge (principles and theories).

Concepts provide organisation and structure for easier retrieval of facts – they are the ‘coat hangers’ on which we interpret and assimilate, relate, and extend new ideas.[1] While it may sound strange to say, I’ve always considered learning to be something of a violent act; but, let me explain using the more felicitous terminology taken from psychologists: cognitive conflict. Learning new ideas creates cognitive conflict in students – when the brain struggles to reconcile new learning with prior knowledge. For students to involve themselves with cognitive conflict, they must be given multiple entry points into new information (interests, prior knowledge, past experience).

I think teachers often try to shield students from the frustrations they experience when suspending what they know in order to see whether and where new information can reside within them. This might mean letting go of previously cherished notions. But it is this struggle that is absolutely necessary for them to learn. Cognitive conflict is an apt descriptor for coming out of the darkness of the cave (re: Plato) into the brilliance of sunshine and it needs help to resolve. Good teachers do that in amazingly imaginative ways and it's altogether right to 'put this monkey' on our backs. If you want to understand a little more about the differences in the way the brain processes factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and conceptual knowledge, I recommend this short video:, which also illustrates the key ingredients to intrinsic motivation teachers can use to help with their learners’ cognitive conflict.[2]

Steps to Take[3]

1.Think about what you want to achieve – the content of the curriculum.

2.Think about which concepts are driving that learning. For example, think about teaching simple machines in terms of the concepts of effort and efficiency. Remember that factual knowledge is locked in time, place, or situation. Conceptual understanding transfers through time, across cultures, and across situations.

3.Think about what you want students to understand – how they can put concepts in relationship. Play with these concepts to get the Big Ideas of the topic/unit (the relationship between/among concepts). Since concepts are understood through facts and skills, start thinking about the different fact/skill-rich contexts that will illuminate the Big Ideas. For example, Big Ideas (Theory/Generalised Principle) in elementary Maths might be that quantities increase as things are added together and decrease as they are subtracted. The concepts in relationship are quantities, number, addition, and subtraction. The topic might be Adding and Subtraction. And, the facts are that 2+2=4 and 8-1=7. The Big Ideas can be illustrated in a number fact/skill rich contexts; e.g., balancing a checking account, shopping for a dinner party, etc.

4.Think about assessments – formative and summative tasks that give students opportunities to show you their understanding. Go ahead and plan an entire dinner party – from guest lists, to food prep, to budgets, to organising seating charts, to quantities and distribution of food at the table, etc.

5.Think about guiding questions you can ask to assist students in uncovering the learning intention – factual, conceptual, and debatable questions will drive their discover of the Big Ideas. For example, factual questions about currency could be: What are different denominations of money? Do all currencies around the globe use denominations of 1, 2, 5, and 10 (and 10, 20, 50, and 100)? A conceptual question could be: Could we use denominations of 3, 4, 6, and 7 to make different whole or equivalent values? And, a debatable question could be: Is it easier to have a currency with denominations of 1, 2, 5, and 10 or with 1, 3, 6, and 7. Why do you think so?

6.Thinking about learning engagements that help students see the conceptual relationships in different contexts – that help them discover understanding. In one secondary summative project to create a campaign to reduce cyber manipulation in social media, the following contexts were used: the Allied ghost armies of WWII, faking out/feinting in sports like football, and phishing emails. It’s all about our imaginations to summon out-of-the-box fact/skill-based contexts to illuminate the Big Ideas. With our guidance, students will make connections among concepts and arrive at the Big Ideas (that are transferable) for themselves. And, that’s how we create critical and innovative thinkers.


To learn more about Concept-based enquiry, check out the following resources:

  • Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, by H. Lynn Erickson, Lois A. Lanning, and Rachel French
  • Conceptual Understanding – Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning, by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, and Juliet Mohnkern
  •, by Julie Stern


I suppose the moral of the story (and this paideia) really is self-evident: choose your rut carefully because you and your students will be in it for a very long time – perhaps a lifetime. Take a chance – experiment – have fun collaborating with your colleagues and students. School leaders need to be aware that there will be failures in your novice attempts. They should encourage experimentation, nonetheless. And, don’t hide this fact from your students – let them know you are trying out a new type of learning – that it’s an adventure for them and for you. They’ll become your biggest supporters; just as you have been their biggest supporter for all the years you’ve taught them

[1] Stern, j, J.U.L.I.E.S.T.E.R.N. c 2018. Education to Save the World. [Online]. [30 November 2018]. Available from:

[2] Forney Independent School District. (2016). How We Learn. [Online Video]. 24 October 2016. Available from: [Accessed: 1 November 2018].

[3] Aow, Angelina. ‘Concept-Based Units of Inquiry’. Seminar handout, St. George's - The English International School Cologne, Germany 2018.