The relationship between conceptual understanding and student action

When one imagines the role of a teacher, you would almost certainly think of a person who enters a class, teaches a topic, and then leaves. The cycle repeats itself for a year and carries on to infinity. While this is true for traditional teaching methodologies, the International Baccalaureate stresses enduring conceptual understanding rather than imparting knowledge on topics. A deeper understanding of concepts that contain everlasting understanding is what the next generation needs to be resilient and become path breakers.


Modern teachers have an arsenal of creative teaching strategies that allow students to investigate how the world works, interpret the fundamentals of expression, and navigate systems to share the planet, besides others. From harnessing the power of technology to infusing every lesson with a sense of experimentation and zest for inquiry, conceptual understanding endures long after our classes are over.

Conceptual understanding

Conceptual understanding goes deeper than a single topic and may span smaller, interconnected concepts. While we teach through inquiry, the focus must always be on real-world issues, lasting understanding imparted by hands-on learning through experiences.

Another critical component of the IB is ‘student action’, which I liken to a sibling of conceptual understanding. When a child has genuinely understood a concept, they implement learning in their own lives and become changemakers. These actions should be shared and celebrated in class to inspire all. Action is one of the best ways to understand how well as a child has identified with your unit.

While not every child may come up with an irrigation system to save drought-plagued areas, even the simple act of creating a poster to raise awareness shows you how deeply a unit has touched a learner’s life.

Working together towards a deeper understanding

When does actual understanding manifest?

Since we deal in everlasting understanding, facilitators cannot ascertain the application of knowledge in a short time frame. Just because a unit is over doesn’t mean that understanding fades away. While some students excel at displaying their expertise during the unit, teachers must not despair when others seem disinterested or don’t perform any tangible action to explain their understanding.

While we may assume the unit made little to no impact on some students, the beauty of conceptual understanding is that it may manifest much later.

The dawning of wisdom could happen while teaching a unit, and action could occur many years later once the child understands how to implement that knowledge in their life. 

Examples from my class- During the unit

We began the school year with a unit on waste management. Learners understood how they could segregate waste, the impact of waste in our lives, and sustainable practices for a green future. Most students enjoyed the unit and demonstrated an incredible connection with the unit. Students created sustainable planters with waste materials, organized clean-up drives and even designed a doll-house using recycled materials.

Composting at home!
Using the design cycle to create a dollhouse with waste materials
Organizing clean up drives

An example from my class- after the unit

The system on waste went by with a bang, followed by a unit on systems in our communities. After exploring how various parts operate together for a system to perform correctly, we connected to our next unit based on exploration in space. The term drew to an end, with some students not performing any action.
During our winter break, I received a fantastic video from one of my students who was passionate about Lego. He had spent the last few months working on a Lego city that included his learning from the units on waste and systems. He had planned the town meticulously and challenged himself by adding moving parts to the structures, adding an element of liveliness to his model.
The child had included solar panels of all buildings to ensure sustainability. He also added a working electric windmill so that the town could have clean electricity. Through his demonstration video, he explained each system of the Lego town included a detailed security and food production system.

I was impressed by his presentation and was reminded that conceptual understanding has no timeline. Instead, knowledge stays deep within the mind, waiting for a chance to flower.

And this project was a work in progress for this child, kept close to his heart, waiting for the right time to burst forth.


Educators, take heart when you don’t see immediate results. The learning we are facilitating isn’t built in a day or over a month but is cemented over a lifetime. Lifelong learning will ensue if you encourage children to experiment, tinker, discuss, debate, and challenge perspectives. Always allow for differentiation, voice, and choice, and authentic learning will follow!


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