A Keystone for Higher-Level Thinking and 21st-Century Learning

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

Keith Mason, Ph.D., is an educator and researcher based in New Providence. His specialties include curriculum, language education, Romance linguistics, phonetics, and musicals in the curriculum. Mason dedicates this article to the memory of Francis H. Quinn, who encouraged his research endeavors in curriculum. Quinn was an English and Latin teacher at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School for 40 years. Quinn passed away in May.

Concept-based curriculum can be a powerful keystone, especially in terms of higher-level thinking and 21st-century skills. This curricular model is in step with current educational goals. H. Lynn Erickson’s work on concept-based curriculum and Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe highlight concepts and other related curricular components.

Concept-based curriculum: In step with current educational goals

Concepts are an important part of instruction, yet they are not consistently highlighted in the curriculum. The emphasis is often on facts and skills. While these two areas are important, focusing solely on them creates a two-dimensional treatment. Two-dimensional design focuses on factual content and skills with assumed, not deliberate, attention to the development of conceptual understanding and transfer of knowledge. Adding concepts to facts and skills creates a three-dimensional treatment.  This model frames factual content and skills with disciplinary concepts, generalizations and principles and brings learning to a higher level.

What exactly are concepts? In Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning, H. Lynn Erickson defines concepts as “a higher level of abstraction than facts in the structure of knowledge. They serve as cells for categorizing factual examples.” Students who can discuss conceptual ideas and use facts to support these ideas demonstrate a deeper grasp of knowledge.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe promotes concepts through their “big ideas.” They define these as “a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills.”

Concept-based curriculum is attributed to curriculum specialist Hilda Taba and goes back more than fifty years. For details about Taba’s contributions to education, refer to the sidebar “Hilda Taba: Curriculum Innovator.”

Context also plays an important role in concept-based instruction. The context is provided by the concept because the facts and skills have an environment that encourages a deeper understanding, higher level learning and a greater likelihood for retention. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe this as “big ideas” in Understanding by Design making them the glue that makes everything stick, that is, aids in retention. Concepts or big ideas are timeless and are what students remember many years after they were exposed to them. Erickson explains that students who can discuss conceptual ideas and use facts to support these ideas gain a deeper grasp of knowledge and the ability to transfer knowledge.

Because concept-based curriculum promotes higher level thinking or deeper learning and 21st century skills, it is perfectly in step with current educational goals. See the sidebars “Higher Level Thinking” and “21st Century Skills.”

Concept-based ideas: Application

I used concept-based curriculum for school musicals. For eight years, I integrated musicals into the high school curriculum. Musicals such as Carousel, Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man and Hello, Dolly! can align to activities and projects that include concepts reflected in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and invite lessons and projects. Concepts from language arts, family and consumer sciences, mathematics, performing arts, science, social studies, visual arts and world languages were used in lessons and projects. The projects were entered into the educational impact category of the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards competition for high school musicals. 

H. Lynn Erickson observes that concepts can be culled from national standards in various subjects, paving the way for concept-based curriculum. The national foreign language standards, for example, are based on five concepts: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons and communities. Erickson also presents macroconcepts and microconcepts in Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul, aligned to various disciplines. These could serve as a big help in developing concept-based curriculum guides and lessons.

Other concept-based curricula include STEM, STEAM, humanities and interdisciplinary units that could incorporate the Multiple Intelligences, habits of mind, learning styles, project-based learning, problem-based learning, cooperative learning and thematic learning.

Lesson and unit goals

A common educational goal today is to specify that “students will know and be able to.” This should be revised to “students will know, understand and be able to do” according to H. Lynn Erickson. She uses the acronym KUD to summarize the three components Know, Understand, Do. The addition of “understand” brings concepts into the goals of learning and encourages in-depth inquiry. The “know” focuses on facts and “be able to” refers to skills. While these two areas are important, the “understand” adds an additional dimension to learning and promotes higher level thinking. Erickson is an advocate of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences in helping shape the KUD objectives.

Concepts and unit titles

A unit title serves to shape a specific unit while also promoting concepts. For example, some unit titles are too general, failing to drive the unit. A unit title “Dinosaurs” would be made more specific and more focused if it were expressed as “Dinosaurs: Their Road to Extinction.” For further information about this and other aspects of concept-based curriculum and its implementation, see the “Resources” below.

Other areas to explore

In addition to concepts, other areas that curriculum preparers can consider include the conceptual lens, generalizations, universal generalizations and principles. These key concept-based curriculum terms are outlined in Table 1. These terms provide educators with a common language for thought, discussion and implementation.

Both teachers and administrators are engaged in the curriculum at the local level. I invite readers to review their own curriculum guides to see how concept-based curriculum can play a role in improving instruction and students’ retention of material. This in turn will help students master higher level thinking and 21st-century skills.


Erickson, H. Lynn. 2008. Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Erickson, H. Lynn & Lois A. Lanning. 2014. Transitioning to Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Erickson, H. Lynn, Lois A. Lanning & Rachel French. 2017. Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Taba, Hilda. 1962. Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Taba, Hilda. 1966. Teaching Strategies and Cognitive Functioning in Elementary School Children. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Research.

Wiggins, Grant & Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Higher-level thinking

Bloom’s Taxonomy and others indicate lower- and higher-level thinking. H. Lynn Erickson questions Bloom’s Taxonomy and traditional curricular objectives because they rely so much on verbs. Erickson finds that critical concept objectives without verbs are much more effective in expressing targets of learning.

Interrogatives help delineate lower- and higher-level thinking. Questions using who, what, where and when are lower level questions because they can be more easily answered. Why and how are higher level questions because they need more elaboration to answer them completely.

Erickson describes a universal concept as a mental construct that is timeless, universal and abstract. Concepts are higher level than facts. Thus, including concepts in the curriculum ensures higher levels of thinking such as analysis and synthesis, which are above knowledge and comprehension when considered within a taxonomy such as Bloom’s Taxonomy.

21st-century standards

What exactly are 21st-century standards? They are benchmarks to enable students to thrive in current society. The document Framework for 21st Century Learning outlines 21st-century skills that educators can use to assist with higher-level thinking and move beyond traditional approaches. These include critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy, flexibility, initiative, productivity and social skills.

Hilda Taba: Curriculum Innovator

Hilda Taba is revered as one of the most significant contributors to curriculum design and intergroup education. Taba was born Dec. 7, 1902 in Kooraste, Russian Empire (today Estonia). Taba completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia where she majored in history and education. She moved to the United States and completed a Master of Arts in Education in 1927 at Bryn Mawr College. Taba completed her doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1932. She studied with William H. Kilpatrick and philosopher John Dewey. Taba became a teacher of German in 1933 at the Dalton School in New York City. In 1939, Taba became director of the curriculum laboratory at the University of Chicago where she remained until 1945.

Taba’s dissertation, The Dynamics of Education, was the foundation for much of her future work. Three key ideas that Taba wrote about in her dissertation included:

  • Learning and the study of learning should be modeled on dynamic models from contemporary physics.
  • Education for democracy was a key component of contemporary curricula.
  • Educators had to provide conceptually sound curriculum that was organized, effectively taught and assessed using appropriate tools and processes.

In 1951, Taba left the Intergroup Education Center for a position at San Francisco State College. There, she undertook her third curriculum reform project where she formulated, researched and wrote about curriculum development foundations. Taba and her colleagues documented the complex processes related to concept formation by children within a social studies curriculum. They implemented staff development for teachers and documented the processes for research. Taba’s associate, Mary Durkin, a teacher and curriculum specialist from the Contra Costa County schools, identified the pivotal bridge between Taba’s theoretical work and the practice of training teachers about concept attainment and curriculum writing.

In 1962, Taba published her book Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice. It is still valuable today because of the detailed information it contains. One of the main ideas promoted in this classic text was that teachers begin by developing specific units of instruction instead of having curriculum begin at the societal or institutional level.

The Taba Spiral Curriculum Development is a graphic organizer used to illustrate concept development in elementary social studies curriculum, used by Taba in 1960s era workbooks. The graphic still is treated in curriculum texts of the 21st century. Taba’s theories and curriculum development processes provided a blueprint for twentieth century curriculum development. Hilda Taba’s in service work in the San Francisco Bay area, U.S. communities and Europe have left a mark on curriculum development practice.

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