Here’s perhaps the most powerful realization of my career: All fields or areas of expertise contain a deeper organizational structure of the most fundamental elements (which we call concepts) and how those elements interact. Once we grasp that deeper organizational structure, we can more easily apply our understanding to completely new situations — also known as transfer of learning.

For instance, when my father was sprinkling ashes from his fire pit in the grass, I wondered what he was doing. He was a pharmacist, so he understands quite a bit about chemistry such as acids, bases, nutrients, and microbial activity. He explained that the region suffers from acid rain, and that ashes are a base, so they help to balance the soil so it can retain vital nutrients. This is such a great example of our goal for students! We want them to apply their learning to future situations in their lives. The concepts of acid, bases, nutrients, microbial activity transfer across situations.

We can, therefore, absolutely teach more deeply and effectively without “covering” more or even working harder. I used to think about how I would break a topic down into parts and explain them to my students. Now I think about the transferable, organizing concepts and skills that will help my students grasp the structure of the discipline. View more examples here.

For instance, if I’m going to teach about Texas history, I might identify: culture, human-environment interaction, conflict, change, and worldview as the most powerful concepts that will provide a through-line for the entire course. And then I curate examples of each of the concepts so that students identify the critical attributes for themselves.

The same works for social-emotional learning. If I want students to grasp the concept of resilience, I might use the examples below to illustrate the critical attributes of the concept.

Download this template and more here.

To get started teaching conceptually, simply read through standards or outcomes, searching for transferable, organizing ideas that could be thought of as the most fundamental elements of a unit or lesson. Then curate examples and maybe even non-examples that will help students to determine the critical attributes of those concepts. Try it out and watch your students enjoy searching for more and more examples of the concepts in their own lives!

For more on teaching for transfer, check out our suite of online courses here.