How to focus on Conceptual Understanding while practicing student Thinking Skills: Simplifying Approaches to Teaching & Learning Series (Part 2)

Venn diagram overlapping Conceptual Understanding and Thinking Skills

This post is part of a 6-part series highlighting how we, as IB teachers, can bring Approaches to Teaching to our classroom and challenge students to engage in Approaches to Learning.

In the first part of the series, we started with some basics about Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATLs) as an integral component of the IB curriculum. For the implementation of these Approaches in the classroom, we discussed how to improve students’ research skills through inquiry-based teaching. Depending on the features of the topic you deal with, it is necessary to modify your Approaches so they serve your different teaching goals, expand your students’ abilities, and give you a change of pace. 

Connecting Approaches to Teaching with Approaches to Learning

This second installment in our series addresses how to practice student thinking skills through teaching focused on conceptual understanding.  Focusing on conceptual understanding during instruction and enhancing students’ thinking skills are two strands recommended by the IBO that suggest an application of Approaches to Teaching and Learning respectively. 

Identify central concepts in your lessons

“Conceptual understanding” is an IB catchphrase that is repeated often, but just as often without explanation. “Concepts”, “understanding”, and their combination for “conceptual understanding” have more than one definition in an educational context. But, as they apply to the IB Diploma Programme (DP), let’s stick to the framework adopted by the IBO.

  • Concepts: “Broad, powerful organizing ideas that have relevance both within and across subject areas” (IBO, 2015).
  • Understanding: Construction of an accurate and stable representation of any situation we encounter; it can be for something concrete, like an item or a phenomenon, or it can be abstract, like a notion.
  • Conceptual understanding: Representations referring to a concept, as a group of ideas with regularities or patterns.

Conceptual understanding is the penthouse of students’ knowledge building. Before getting there though, students deploy other forms of knowledge: declarative (knowledge about something) and procedural (knowledge of something) (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). These forms of knowledge are meant to work collaboratively so students manage to interrelate concepts (conceptual knowledge) with content (declarative knowledge) and skills (procedural knowledge). 

Classifications and categories, principles and generalizations, and theories, models and structures, make up the components of conceptual knowledge (Krathwohl, 2002). Students at the DP level need to acquire complex thinking skills in order to comprehend, connect, and use these components not only in the classroom but for their personal projects too, such as the Extended Essay. Before introducing our students to conceptual learning, we first should be focused on conceptual teaching.

💡 When you organize your lesson for a specific unit, spend a minute or two to create a “conceptual outline” with the central concepts implied in your instruction, as keywords for each paragraph or section.

Even if you have your material already prepared, you can work backward: take a look at your notes of theories and exercises and find the key concepts that are hiding behind them. This process may help you change your perspective and make new connections, reorganize, add or delete things.

Encourage students to use tools such as concept maps

Now you have your targeted concepts all ready to go. How can you turn the focus of your class to conceptual understanding and give rise to valuable thinking skills within a specific topic?

💡 For a given topic, launch a mind-map by asking your students to pose related questions. Write down the main ideas, connect them to create several “concept-hubs” and identify the most prominent among them.

See if the central concepts that your discussion with the students brought up match your original conceptual outline. You can make adjustments to your plan or suggest some modifications to the students’ mind-map.

The construction of the conceptual map activates students’ thinking skills. Remembering (recalling), understanding (comprehending), applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (synthesizing) are all part of the cognitive process (Krathwohl, 2002) and a conceptual map can bring them into play. Differentiating between ideas, organizing them into concept-hubs, and generating a mind-map of central concepts put into practice their analytical and creative thinking skills.

Give opportunities to students to draw links to other subjects 

The initial ideas proposed by students for the construction of their conceptual maps probably derive from another school subject or from their personal experience – this is a good sign that they’re making connections. “According to this cross-domain transfer hypothesis, to acquire a new central idea in a target domain X, the learner must first acquire that idea in some source domain Y… and then transfer the new idea to X and build a new understanding of X around it” (Ohlsson, Moher, & Johnson, 2000). This learning hypothesis is in-line with the IB guidance for linking across the subjects, including the Theory of Knowledge (ToK).

Adopting ideas from one domain and utilizing them in another can be a tricky business for us, and we usually discourage students from doing it.  As educators, we work toward a clear distinction of the concepts within our subject, but we often turn a blind eye to students’ prior knowledge – on the contrary, we should know in advance the most common ideas they carry. Keep in mind that for almost every concept, regardless of how abstract or elusive this may be, they have a representation already formed long before entering our classroom.

💡 We can’t “turn off” prior knowledge, so we’re better off making it work for us, not against us. Prompt the students to express ideas connected to central concepts and make them realize the source of these ideas, whether it is another subject or a real-life example.

Instead of dismissing these representations as irrelevant to your subject, meet your students half-way: identify the common ground between their original ideas on a concept and the ones you want to teach them. They will be more confident to approach the new perspective of the concepts and more open-minded towards the discrepancies.

Students pose real-life examples of concepts that mainly come from personal experience. These are particularly difficult for us to work with because they have very long and strong roots.

💡 Instead of trying to eradicate students’ initial representations of concepts, use them as the ground floor, and build upon them.

Thinking skills related to the evaluation will be called into action: checking and critiquing the new framework they’re building on a familiar concept can expand students’ initial knowledge, and bring it into harmony with the fresh one.

Pose a variety of different types of questions

By clearing the fog around central concepts, you minimize the interference of other subjects and experiences and set your framework on a solid base.

💡 Unfold the content and the skills you want to teach them around the concepts at hand.

This is a feature of the constructivist approach: the several elements of your instruction have a common thread that makes sense to students because your material is now connected to the mindmap they constructed and explored.

Encourage students to pose inquiry questions on the material you presented, while keeping in mind the purpose of different types of questions: 

  • Factual questions indicate the activation of lower-order thinking skills, like recall and comprehension. Factual questions are a characteristic type of basic information questions and they usually appear when students get familiar with new material.
  • Conceptual questions demand higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and synthesis (Bloom, 1956). Conceptual questions fall under the wonderment questions category and they are generated as students “dig deeper.”

💡 Provoke the formation of debatable questions that link facts and concepts, and use them as starting points for homework assignments.

These assignments give students the opportunity to advance all forms of knowledge (procedural, declarative, and conceptual). As an inquiry exercise, you can organize group activities for the design of mini-instruction plans. For a concept of their choice, they should include both content-driven and skills-related activities that they will present to the class.

Here’s how to organize these assignments with 100mentors:

#1 Create a topic on the platform that opens the discussion on debatable questions.
#2 Assign students the in-class or homework task to submit their debatable questions.
#3 Have students construct a conceptual map according to the answers they receive.
#4 From these concepts, have them choose a central one that they will design content-driven and skill-related activities on within your subject’s framework.
#5 Have students present these activities in the classroom as mini-instructions.
#6 Discuss the similarities and differences of the students’ approaches.

From your instruction planning to the student’s assignments, this is an excellent implementation of Approaches to Teaching and Learning. The inquiry process circle starts with an inquiry and moves through action and reflection, with a special focus on conceptual understanding and the advancement of students’ thinking skills.

Ready to get started with a tool that brings Approaches to Teaching and Learning to your classroom? Click here to get started free.


Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of education objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. Retrieved from et al -Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.pdf

IBO. (2015). Approaches to teaching and learning. Retrieved September 23, 2019, from

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212–218.

Ohlsson, S., Moher, T. G., & Johnson, A. (2000). Deep Learning in Virtual Reality: How to Teach Children That the Earth is Round. In L. R. Gleitman & A. K. Joshi (Eds.), Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 364–368). Retrieved from

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge Building: Theory, Pedagogy, and Technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97–118).

Pepy is a University and IB Diploma Programme Physics teacher, with an MA and Ph.D. in Science Education. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in teachers' STEM education. As the Head of Research at 100mentors, she empowers educators to turn theory into practice with educational technology solutions.

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