Passionate about education and its philosophy, Jérémie has over 15 years of experience in international schools. His contributions to many publications cover a large variety of topics, from change management to tech integration and student leadership. He will soon be launching Ed Coach, a YouTube channel for teachers and school leaders, and is the incoming High School Instructional and Curriculum Coordinator at the International School of Panama.
Concept-based curriculum design is often presented as an effective way to achieve the objectives of modern education, such as:
- Active learning, as conceptual understandings are mentally constructed.
- Personalization, as they apply in a variety of contexts.
- Future readiness, as they extend to new circumstances.
- System and critical thinking, as they allow us to navigate complexity and recognize interconnectedness.
- Global citizenship, as they make it possible to articulate multiple perspectives and translate values into action.
The limits of “transferable generalizations”
While this is true, these benefits might not be fully accessible if concepts are defined, as they usually are, as transferable generalizations, the instances of which share timeless and universal attributes. Indeed another name for such abstract sets of enduring features is: “definitions”, and definitions are not necessarily conducive to active learning. They lend themselves to rote memorization, just like facts do. And the same is true of conceptual understandings if they are nothing more than statements of relations between definitions. More generally, transferable generalizations only allow for fairly low levels of cognition, such as induction, recognition, or application to new situations with familiar features. Likewise, presenting important and complex concepts as having straightforward definitions and relations is arguably the opposite of critical thinking. Finally, teaching that they simply transfer, unchanged, across various settings seems to deny, rather than highlight, the existence of multiple perspectives.
By construction, “transferable generalizations” require students to focus exclusively on similarities, setting aside the differences between various cases. The problem with this approach is that it reduces concepts to abstractions that, far from shedding light on anything, cast a “night in which all cows are black”, as Hegel used to say. Take the concept of “democracy”. To make it timeless and universal, one would have to find a definition that encompasses instances as different as the direct democracy of Greek city-states, former communist “people’s democracies”, and contemporary representative democracies. What transferable generalization could possibly apply to all of them? Sure enough, we might say that, in these regimes, political power is exercised “in the name of the people”. But would that really help students understand anything about them, or about the concept itself? Isn’t it more fair to say that it would lead them to confuse completely different things, and leave them with a very vague and rather empty notion of what democracy is? The truth is that there is no meaningful list of characteristics shared by all of these different instances. This does not mean that we cannot conceptualize them all as “democracies”, but it does mean that we might have to look beyond the “transferable generalization” approach to concepts.
The concept of “concept”
What is a concept? This is the type of question that philosophers like to answer, and one of them in particular could help us greatly here. According to Hegel, a concept explains the meaning of something (e.g., democracy) by laying out the contradictions that it must transcend. Contrary to a straightforward “transferable generalization”, a true concept thus synthesizes the attributes that bring its instances together–and those that set them apart. It subsumes their common and opposite features. Thus, democracy might be conceptualized as a regime where political power is exercised in the name of the people, but also where people are protected against the exercise of political power. In that light, Greek city-states, former “people’s democracies”, and contemporary representative democracies, all fall under the same concept, not because they share similar characteristics, but because they borrow from different sides of the tensions that exist within the very definition of “democracy”.
Contrary to transferable generalizations, real concepts are really objects of understanding, because they require high-level, complex cognition: not only abstracting (which means reducing multiplicity to unity, and thus simplifying), but holding opposite ideas in mind and overcoming their contradiction–what Hegel famously called Aufheben. For that reason, they naturally lend themselves to an inquiry-based approach. For a student, understanding concepts differs from memorizing pieces of knowledge (even abstract ones, such as transferable generalizations) because the former gives the latter meaning by putting them in the perspectives of the issues they raise and solve.
Are concepts timeless and universal?
These solutions are rarely immediate. Hegel talked about the “patience of the concept” to highlight the fact that its instances often represent different moments of a process. If such is the case, then concepts are not “timeless”, like transferable generalizations, but essentially historical, or at least dialectical. If we were to have students map the attributes shared by the democratic city-states of Ancient Greece, the former communist “people’s democracies”, and contemporary representative democracies, their “transferable definition” of democracy would not only be vague and confusing: it would also necessarily be an-historical, which would prevent them from understanding the history of this concept (and, incidentally, the concept of History itself). However, understanding what democracy is precisely means understanding its transformations as the progressive manifestation and resolution of the internal contradictions of its concept–not overlooking them so that all instances can fall under the same unchanging category.
Contrary to what one might think, this is by no means limited to the kinds of concepts found in the social sciences: in the natural sciences, for instance, concepts are created to articulate and solve experimental problems. As for mathematics, French epistemologist Cavaillès explained how the logic of its concepts is dialectical in nature.
For the same reason, true concepts might not be universal, but cultural. Just like they have an internal complexity, concepts exist in networks, which are worldview, or as Hegel used to say Volksgeist-dependent. Insisting on the existence of common attributes, the “transferable generalization” approach runs the risk of denying this reality and blindly projecting its own cultural assumptions. As Quine famously demonstrated, different languages are ultimately incommensurable. In the words of Wittgenstein, they play different “games” and express different “life forms”. Unless one is truly multicultural, it is impossible to fully understand what an American means when they talk about “democracy”. This is not an issue of translation: I might be able to transfer this expression into my own language, but doing so means connecting it to my own cultural background–not theirs. All I can do is assume that the American “democracy” is similar to the French “démocratie”–which is not the case. Or rather, my only other option is to start asking questions about their similarities and dissimilarities. As Quine pointed out, any additional piece of information will present the same problem, but in the aggregate, they will still help me improve my understanding. Interestingly, this means that concepts, far from being easily transferable, might require the back-and-forth of conversation. It is easy to see why, if different cultures, just like different historical examples, approach concepts from some of their opposite sides. While “transferable generalizations” pretend to equip students with a sort of transcultural map devoid of any point of view, authentic concepts thus truly help them learn how to navigate different cultural environments by making them aware of the tensions that come from the existence of different perspectives, and by giving them the mental flexibility needed to appreciate them.
Similarly, concepts do not simply “transfer” across disciplines. Just like different cultures, different disciplines explore different sides of the problems raised and solved by concepts. Thus, democracy can be seen as an instance of the broader concept of “system”, which students can encounter in mathematics, physics, biology, economics, history, etc. While the various systems found in these subjects might be defined as “sets of interacting elements functioning as a whole”, this transferable generalization would not really allow students to grasp the point of the concept–which is that the behaviors of individual elements both dictate and depend on their interactions, just like they are both influenced by and an active in their broader environment. The different aspects of the internal tensions that give meaning to a concept are more or less salient in different subjects, and this is arguably where the value of interdisciplinary learning comes from: not from the fact that each subject confirms the generalizations already found in others but, to the contrary, from the fact that their multiple angles help better understand the issue at hand.
Concepts and thinking skills
Even within the same culture or discipline, concepts are places of debate. While they might not all be “essentially contested”, they do open their objects to interpretation, even if they are not subject to discussion themselves. Being dialectical, their application will not be as straightforward as the transfer of a piece of abstract knowledge. For instance, in statistics, conceptualizing a data point as an “outlier” means that it can either confirm or challenge a normal distribution, and that which is the case remains undecided until further consideration, which will often be up to interpretation. Once again, this is why concepts are objects of understanding: because grasping them means holding their opposite sides in view. And this is also why concept-based curricula can foster critical thinking–provided they are based on actual concepts, and not on “transferable generalizations”, which can only be unilateral.
While the latter are simple inductions, true concepts are creations. They are not timeless or universal “truths”, but ground-breaking questions and answers that allow us to rethink our mental and social systems and force them to evolve. Only by organizing curricula around such concepts can we ensure that students will really be prepared for the future. Indeed, students are future-ready when they are able to grasp and address entirely new problems, not by transferring the generalizations they have learned in the past, but by creating the concepts needed to devise innovative solutions.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, making students grapple with dialectical concepts, rather than transfer unilateral generalizations, trains their empathy and conflict-resolution skills, which might be the best way to help them develop good, ethical dispositions.
Compared to transferable generalizations, dialectical concepts seem much better suited to our modern world. They are multipolar, constantly evolving, culture-sensitive, and consensual rather than imperialistic. For this reason, curricula structured around them would be much better designed to achieve the objectives of modern education, including active learning, personalization, future-readiness, critical thinking skills, and global citizenship–but only by moving beyond mere “transferable generalizations”. To do so, a simple solution could be to ensure that curricula follow guiding questions. However, we would first need to check that these questions are really problematic, i.e., represent a tension, contradiction, trade-off, or debate between equally important, but opposite sides. Otherwise, concept-based learning might not ensure that students are equipped to articulate, and solve, the issues of tomorrow–or, as the IB suggests, “to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”