Conceptual Learning

February 7, 2019
Posted in Learning
February 7, 2019 Deborah Gordon

Conceptual Learning

It used to be that we all came to school to learn ‘stuff’. Depending on the national curriculum we were educated in, we learnt facts and skills that were locked in time, place and culture. We were then tested on what we did and didn’t know. Today, in many international or national education systems, knowledge and skills still play a vital role in building students’ understanding. All learning starts with this awareness; either learning about something (knowledge) or learning to do something (skills).

The difference in PYP and conceptual learning is that we consider isolated knowledge or skills the starting point. Our goal is to help students see patterns and undercover trends in what they are learning, and test and transfer what they understand in new contexts. Conceptual learning addresses the ‘why’; helping students to extrapolate above singular facts to broader, transferable, more meaningful understandings.

Some examples of what this might look like in different learning areas is included below.

Knowledge and skills to support conceptual learning

Abstracting from knowledge or skill-based learning

Transferring understanding

Social Studies

Read case studies of migration identifying push and pull causes, barriers and outcomes of migration

Articulate a generalization about how causes of migration can determine the outcomes of migration Investigate an example of migration and apply the generalization to see if it works in this case


Make observations

Form hypothesis and make predictions

Make and test predictions


Observe and play a modified invasion game (simplified to core elements)

Identify, name and demonstrate effective offensive strategies and tactics in a modified invasion game

Play a full invasion game (e.g. touch) applying offensive strategies.  Consider how to apply to a new invasion game (e.g. football).


Read a poem looking for self-conscious use of language; group and name examples.

Suggest interpretation of why the poet is using particular strategies.

Test out interpretation on another poem by the same poet to look for similarities and differences.

Reflecting on learning

Summarize impressions of how things have gone. Analyze causal factors for why things happened.

Apply learning about this experience to future experiences.

When students develop their conceptual understandings, they form generalizations. In the PYP, our central ideas for each unit are generalizations. These are explicit understandings of the world and of academic learning. They are the cognitive structure that show an understanding of causality, significance and meaning. Generalizations are the difference between understanding and rote learning of knowledge and skill. Generalizations allow for the transfer of understanding. In our Elementary School, generalizations that students make might look like –

  • Biodiversity relies on maintaining the balance of living things within ecosystems. (Grade 2)


  • Discrimination can be based on ignorance, fear and social status. (Grade 5)


“A concept-driven curriculum is the means through which students develop their conceptual understandings. Students co-construct beliefs and mental models about how the world works based on their experiences and prior learning. They integrate new knowledge with their existing knowledge and apply these understandings in a variety of new contexts. They learn to recognize patterns and see the connections between discrete examples to strengthen conceptual understandings.”

(© International Baccalaureate Organization, PYP: Principles into Practice, 2018)

Deborah Gordon
PYP Vice Principal