The purpose of an essay is to ‘attempt’ to explore an argument in order to see what you really think about it. Such dialect should invigorate society as it has done since The Garden of Athens. Yet who really likes writing, or reading, essays in school? Often they are unduly formulaic and aimed to hit a rubric. Markers of terminal exams are paid very little, and will rarely follow a tricky argument.  


Concept based curriculum and instruction (CBCI) aims to encourage students to think evaluative and rigorously about ideas in ways that extend beyond the classroom. Literature teaching, at its best, does that. However, schools are institutions whose primary organising principle (Bunnell et al 2016) is putting students into university and the next path of their lives. Of course, the hidden curriculum and holistic education are essential aspects of effective schooling, not optional extras and arguably more important. But without exam success, a school’s existence is threatened. 


The pressure for terminal exams is felt most by those teachers in higher school. Those teachers need to focus on more than exam papers. To not acknowledge that is naive. Yet the false dichotomy between exam success and conceptual thinking need not exist. A situated, and synthesised, concept-based learning plan that achieves the rubric of an exam is possible. 


Step by Step Guide to One Iteration of a Concept-Based Learning Plan


I have written the beginnings of a unit plan for Orwell’s 1984 that I will begin to teach soon. In this unit, I have created: 


  1. A series of extracts from every chapter of the novel.
  2. A list of key themes sourced from all the major study guides – these become our concepts. The key concept is chosen (which could be any) as the ‘conceptual lens’. Control is chosen as that ‘concept lens’ for this iteration. 
  3. A thesis statement for each extract based upon the key concepts. 

Developing this: 


  1. From that thesis statement, three claims have been created that tackle all the key concepts of the thesis statement in turn. See this post for an example, or the bottom of this post for a picture. 
  2. From each thesis statement, a generalisation is created using two concepts and Ericksen et al’s list of verbs (2007). 
  3. For each generalisation, a list of questions is created to guide factual, conceptual and debatable thinking. 


How would this enhance my practice? 


  1. My vision is that as we consider the ideas in the text, students would decide which 2-3 concepts would best help organise our thoughts. The metaphor of ‘concept as organiser’ is key here. This ranking of concepts in terms of relevancy is essential – most choices are fairly definitive.

    2. Students then attempt to create a thesis statement to a generic iGCSE question. From those we can compare thesis statements to consider how to organise the concepts.

    3. Students can, potentially, see how to create three claims so that the thesis statement becomes a genuine argument.

    4. Students should create (induct to) a generalisation from those given concepts. Again, we can compare generalisations.

    5. These generalisations can then form opportunities to transfer understanding to other fields of knowledge, and thus deepen our understanding of that generalisation. 


How do we know if this conceptual thinking is deepening thinking? 


Since the concepts in the generalisation exist also in a thesis statement, the students can test the deepening of their understanding via their arguments in an essay, or other discursive, format.  


Next Steps


I want to model this practice in school, and to iterate this process. I hope that routine and practice integrate this pedagogy into daily practice. 


I want to develop strategies to guide students to not only understand the processes of text analysis, but also to knowing the right time to use such strategies (read this and this). Because such writing is largely a tacit process, I feel this practice is not necessarily enhanced by conceptual understanding. In other words, understanding that ‘authors use characterisation to present ideas in a text’ is too vague to help students, even if they induct towards it. 




Erickson, H L, and Carol A. Tomlinson. Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press, 2007. Print.


Tristan Bunnell, Michael Fertig & Chris James (2016) What is international about International Schools? An institutional legitimacy perspective, Oxford Review of Education, 42:4, 408-423, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2016.1195735

Click here to see an example of a Unit Web with generalisations and further thoughts