Concept-Based Instruction: Author Q&A
Concept-Based Instruction: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, June 17, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

Teachers and curriculum specialists are exposed to many ideas from educational leaders, but it is difficult to know which ones can be transformed into meaningful learning experiences in the classroom. Concept-Based Instruction: Building Curriculum With Depth and Complexity helps educators translate the works of leading educational thinkers into concept-based units and challenges all students to think through active and meaningful learning experiences. Learn more about the book and how to create practical and organized units that inspire student thinking in this interview with the author, Brian E. Scott, Ed.D.

Q: What is concept-based curriculum, and why is it beneficial for both teachers and students?

A: Concept-based curriculum allows students to make connections across various subjects. Once called thematic instruction, the “themes” have evolved into broader ideas and make room for multiple associations and applications to other subject areas and the world. A few examples of concepts are relationships, change, systems, and structure. It has become a little cliché, but always worth repeating: Teachers create units of study based on the final goals and outcomes aligned with standards and objectives—the end—in mind (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). After these objectives have been mapped out for the year, teachers look for common big idea concepts and refer continuously to those through the essential questions and enduring understandings that emerged through the planning process.

Q: How can cross-curricular instruction deepen students’ understanding of complex topics?

A: Classrooms have had to make an advancement to deeper understanding after the development of the Common Core State Standards. Teachers went from teaching a checklist of standards to covering new standards with much deeper expectations. Having a concept-centered unit design fosters greater connections. For example, the concept of change can be found in multiple subject areas. With the added layer of a few broad-based essential questions and enduring understandings, teachers can facilitate the learning of students as they respond to these questions with a variety of responses and look for examples to support the everlasting considerations.

Q: How did you choose which leading educational concepts to synthesize and present in this book?

A: My experiences as a high-ability teacher and curriculum designer molded this development. One idea I learned through my own professional reading and growth was to think of concepts as bigger than a noun (person, place, or thing), but as more of an abstract idea. During my professional growth, I latched on to Carol Ann Tomlinson very quickly as a teacher. I was already differentiating in my classroom, but I did not know there was someone out there promoting it or putting some sort of structure or name to it until the mid-1990s. I thought it was simply good teaching based on what I had learned in graduate school, professional studies, and workshops. The same was true of concept-based unit design. I was probably introduced to it through my gifted and talented courses, but I never had a chance to do more with it beyond the basic understanding. I have read, reread, and read again Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) work along with anything I could find presented by either of them. On the surface I found their work to be logical, but I had to do some deeper study because I knew there was more to what they believe than just working backward and with the end in mind—something many teachers have found to be successful. I consider myself to be a never ending work in progress when it comes to these ideas and embracing them as my own.

My administrative career started out in 2000 as an assistant principal. After 2 years, budget cuts sent me back to the classroom. It was an opportunity to take so much of what I had learned and apply it—concept-based instruction with Understanding by Design embedded with a high level of differentiation. Those 2 years are what led to my writing this book, along with a nudge from my wife as I was preparing to retire from administration.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs caught my attention at a national Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference in the early 2000s. I was transitioning as a new building principal with a retooled staff, and it became clear that teachers were previously all over the place in terms of what standards they were teaching, to what level, and when. Hayes Jacobs’s book was written in a style that teachers could embrace. I assigned the book to be read the first 4 weeks of summer and followed up with a 2-day retreat prior to school starting that included a whole day of processing the practice and mapping the first semester of the year. Teachers LOVED it! It was a beginning that led to repeating the process for the rest of the year, but district practices limited expansion of concept-based curriculum except for in high-ability classrooms. Teachers in the high-ability program were able to develop these units, and they still exist to a certain level 15 years later. All students benefit from a concept-based learning environment, but it is easier to “sell” concept-based instruction as high-ability because it is viewed as a differentiated structure.

Q: How can these concept-based units be differentiated for learners of various abilities, ages, etc.?

A: Those 2 years I addressed in the previous question expanded my classroom composition to about 28 students, with a little more than half of them identified as universally gifted (language arts and math). The general education students in the class were at the average school achievement level. The second year a student with autism was included as a general education student due to his strong mathematics skills and an annual case conference decision. (Today he is an independent systems operator after earning a master’s degree from a major university in data science.) The level of thinking in a concept-based classroom is differentiated, but it is just a foundational layer in a multi-level learning environment. My book helps teachers to organize, lay out, and implement a concept-based design. It provides ideas for differentiation, but it does not give specifics. Teachers must know their class of students and what means of differentiation are possible in a flexible manner. I believe concept-based instructional design can be utilized in any grade but would look slightly different in each level. I have not heard of a school at the secondary level, other than possibly those following a version of the International Baccalaureate Programme, using a concept-based unit design. Students would no longer view each of their courses as silos. I see middle-level and early high school grade levels having stronger connections being created with an umbrella concept that crosses into different subjects with common essential questions and enduring understandings. Imagine how a reflective and cumulative assessment across disciplines in a variety of formats would break down the silos and deepen the understanding with better application and transfer.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

A: I hope readers take the examples in the book and apply them to their classrooms. The templates are meant to be used as a tool. From a classroom environment perspective, students should be thinking deeply and making connections across curricula as well as transferring these to real-life situations. The structure provides differentiation opportunities and ensures that standards are not just covered but are taught and learned by students.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brian E. Scott, Ed.D., began his educational career in 1982 as a sixth-grade teacher in a small rural school. He started his district’s first multigrade, self-contained gifted and talented classroom before moving on to two different teaching assignments beginning in 1994, including a classroom of high-ability students clustered within the general education classroom. In 2004 he was hired as an assistant principal and then as the principal in a suburban district just outside Indianapolis and served in that capacity before retiring from administration in 2016. Dr. Scott has been a presenter and consultant at the local, state, and national levels. He has created teacher workshops on active and engaging social studies, hands-on activities to enhance mathematics instruction, and high-yielding instructional strategies for creating a high-performing differentiated classroom.