Maybe, like me, you are interested in exploring how Concept-Based Learning (CBL) can enhance your classroom. Why do so? I achieve good results on a classroom basis with positive feedback from students saying they find lessons interesting and stimulating. We cover many different concepts and access difficult materials. 

While I find that one-off lessons and schemes of work are critiqued annually, I rarely see good critiques of curriculum. CBL seems a more sophisticated and aspirational curriculum model than those I have seen before. 

With that in mind, here five questions you might ask about CBL:


  1. What are some existing curriculum issues?


A curriculum based upon exam questions is a poor idea. It can be one that prizes the ease of organization rather than created intellectual character. A quick browse on twitter, TES, TpT and amongst some popular YouTube teachers will show texts filtered through the current exam. 


I have seen schemes of work in Key Stage 3 based on ‘question 2’ of a terminal exam in Key Stage 4. There is no conceptual map suggested other than the importance of a terminal exam. 


Assessments must occur at the same time in every subject to facilitate top-down control. In this model, the hidden curriculum for teachers and students is clear. Intellectual curiosity and passion is merely problematic, or useful insofar as it might lead to performance in terminal exams. 


Conversations with my network have shocked me with how top-down some state school systems are too. I understand that in some Western nations, observation schedules and methods must be agreed and uniform across entire districts. Again, the hidden curriculum here is clear. Yes, accountability is very important. But what messages do we send out about the value of thinking vs doing?


I am fortunate that I am able to organise my classroom as I want to. To organise assessments around the ease of organising is a terrible thing. Let’s organise assessments around something that might be intellectually curious, for teachers as well as for students. 


  1. Why do we need to create intellectual character?


CBL aims to create intellectual character. This is a worthy mission. Not every teacher has the cultural literacy to do so immediately, but every teacher should have the tools to strive for intellectual character. 


Of course, expecting teachers to mark excessively (Geoff Barton, a great man, suggested 10+ hours a week for an English teacher on top of lesson preparation) hampers their ability to read, a necessary element of intellectual character. Moreover, institutions that crush teacher agency and create undue fear and uncertainty may be easier to manage, but they will hamper attempts of teachers to nurture their own intellectual character. 


Intellectual character is more than an intellectual process. Attention and focus are poor words for what actually might be more spiritual terms. 


Intellectual curiosity is exciting. It is not for everyone, but everyone should be in an environment that prizes it. Classrooms need to prize intellectual curiosity and demand emotional engagement. 


The idea that children in lower years are more intellectually curious and excited than their elder peers is often expressed. Do you think that the way we treat young adults outside school is a significant contribution to that dip?  


Some might allude to Ken Robinson, a man whose ideas are very attractive but have been critiqued well here and here. He does offer rousing soundbites, though. He talks about how we ‘stigmatize mistakes’ in the classroom. In ‘seeking mistakes’ in learning, we are being realistic about how thinking and learning works. The purpose of literary thought is often to problematise ideas and interpretations. 


However, this ambition to ‘seek mistakes’ must be tempered, if only that we should seek solutions at some point. Cogency and functionality in the arts has been arguably dimmed over the past fifty years. Social sciences are still struggling with issues of methodology, with quantitative methodology happily attracting grant money. The behaviourists and the cognitivists fight for the heart of psychology even now, a battle that has continued for decades. Rationality vs Sensibility, Religion vs Science – CP Snow apt tells us that these camps speak a language that the other cannot understand. Intellectual character in all subjects offers the chance to understand the language of others, even if you cannot speak it yourself. 


Ultimately, CBL stresses a curriculum that prizes thinking and knowledge for its own sakes, whilst using exam results (occupational functionalism) as a buy-in for those who desire that. It demands an emotional engagement and intellectual character so that students are motivated from using their minds well, not just from achievement. 


That is a curriculum in which I can believe.  


  1. Cognitive science – what are some brief benefits and issues?


Cognitive science terms are used in CBL, especially those of cognitive overload. I believe in a classroom of stimulation and language. However, there should still be an overarching foci to structure our organic journeys when interpreting texts. 


Cognitive science does make some quite strong statements about synaptic divides across the brain. There are questions about our understanding of the brain in relation to learning, especially complex learning: 


  1. Firstly, the experiments of neuroscience are currently (and necessarily) lab-based, which means they test for learning on very clearly quantifiable elements.


  1. Secondly, just because a part of the brain experiences brain activity during a task does not mean that is the dominant or most significant part of the brain involved.


However, cognitive science in practice makes practical sense. As it applies to CBL, offering multiple cues for the retrieval/recreation of knowledge seems great practice. 


4. What are some possible critiques and solutions of CBL?


  1. CBL is a relatively new model. As a model, it is a representation of only part of reality. However, it intends to be pragmatically useful, and it has credibility. Like with all models, identifying its prioritisations, and what it might be deprioritising, is essential. Models that aim to hide their values should be held with suspicion.

    CBL is clear that it aims to promote and nourish intellectual character in both students and teachers. 


  1. As a model, it also seems to be using words like ‘know’ and ‘understand’ in ways that are not commonly used, in my training of Bloom’s taxonomy at least.

    Bloom’s needs to be critiqued though because it encourages classroom teachers to evaluate too often and too early. This, of course, is more of an issue in school-wide implementation. 


  1. The 3D curriculum metaphor could also do with multiple metaphors to fully explain its nuances. Currently, facts and skills exist on both x and y axis, yet also seem to form more than a foundation. Therefore what is the base of the model? And how about the walls of the model. Are facts on one side and skills on the other? What is the vertical axis in this model? This suggests that facts are deep and that concepts are a covering. 


The model is clear though, and visually represents the issues of traditional curriculum models. 


  1. Traditional curriculum models are said to be in part responsible for disparity in student achievement. Many non-CBL schools achieve very highly with expert teachers who use subject-specific models of their disciplines.

    CBL aims to intellectually nourish students beyond exams (which are not terribly hard to ‘hack’ with artefacts of good writing). It is more ambitious than traditional curriculum models. 


  1. Students and teachers and people are cognitive misers. Therefore, aspiring to make both intellectually curious in most lessons risks exhausting both staff and students.


Let’s not make excuses – intellectual curiosity should be an expectation, not an aspiration. Simply delivering lessons with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude is not good enough. Not really much more to say about that. 


  1. Discipline specific curriculum maps exist for a reason. Teachers are trained in them. They use roughly agreed terms. Creating new conceptual maps deprioritises the discovery of existing ones.

    CBL acknowledges the need for subject-specific understanding. Anway, Vygoysky is clear that people cannot gain conceptual maps through mere explanation.  


  1. CBL speaks about improving the students’ intelligence. Is this possible? Is ‘G’ intelligence a set score? Growth mindset has garnered academic critique.

    As before, developing intellectual curiosity and empowering people is a worthy aim,  regardless of how intelligence might measure in a laboratory test. While a critical thinking population may not be civilly minded if they do not find gainful employment (see Bourdieu’s work on cultural schisms), it seems morally right to empower all students to believe they can always become more intelligent.  


  1. Is CBL too vague and aspirational? Would other projects give you more ‘bang for your buck’? Can you quantify CBL’s gains?

    CBL does not proritise an adult-needs curriculum model, but rather one that seems to force argumentation and agreement of key issues affect students, particularly sociopolitical and environmental. These subjects require solving. This is apt argument for implementing a CBL curriculum.

    Moreover, the issue with quantifiable data is that it is one version of reality written in a language that ignores emotional truths. However, data is often presented as the most significant expression of reality.


  1. CBL suggests that existing curriculums or classrooms set up conceptual and evaluative thinking as an afterthought.

    I’m not sure this is true in my discipline, since evaluation is a daily practice of textual interpretation. Again, subject-specific applications of CBL are key.


  1. Where do the generic conceptual words come from? 


I think the vagueness of these words intend to allow students to spiral through more sophisticated interpretations of them. I do think though, we need to unpick the sociopolitical assumptions behind the choice of some concepts, and the values they suggest. Maybe that’s just the literature guy in me!


  1. There is a touch of writing on metacognitive thinking.


Adding an emphasis of the right time to use metacognitive strategies is most ideal. See this post and video:


  1. Concepts, principles, generalisations, Difficult to understand these terms because they are being used in a technical way outside traditional understanding. E.g, generalisations etc. Are these universal? Who has decided on these aspects?

    Teachers like me can surely get used to how these terms are being used in the CBL context. Think of Shakespeare!
  2. Transfer of concepts is seen as higher-order thinking. However, to what extent does this create cogency? Is it possible to transfer ill-knowledge of a text etc?

    CBL requires students to evaluate the veracity of their transfers, and to avoid dangerous relativism. Whilst the idea of truth is challenging in contemporary society, to ignore any attempt to truth will doom us all. 


5. What is an immediate and practical application of CBL?


The first chapter of CBL contain an immediate and practical application. 


Where a student might aim to analyse and understand an idea/theme/concept, a further evaluation can be striven for by adding  ‘so they understand that…’ So for example: ‘Students know that Romeo presents the archetypical Petrarchan Lover so they can appreciate how such conventions can be subverted for effect’. This seems to be the point where usefulness or impact or applicability is sought after.


Three Final Thoughts: 

  1. A Conceptual Based Curriculum (CBC) is ambitious and built on the desire to build intellectual character whilst still honoured discipline-specific thinking. 
  2. A CBC refers to cognitive science. 
  3. A CBC has practical applications that allow us to integrate evaluation organically and responsive into the daily rhythm of learning.