On my bookshelf …Conceptual Understanding and Transfer of Learning Related

Over the past couple of years, Alberta has been engaged and continues to be so, in a large scale curriculum review and restructure for its k-12 curriculum.  Foundational to the work has been a determination to work toward a concept-based or concept-focused approach to instruction with an eye to supporting greater levels of engagement and transfer of learning over time, place, subject throughout life.  This work is research-based and certainly not isolated to Alberta. Many of the authors listed below are travelling the world sharing their work.

The work draws upon specific pedagogical approaches, work on enhancing thinking in the classroom, sound assessment practices and all aspects of what should make learning visible, teaching with greater clarity, and from a student’s point of view greatly enhancing the value of learning over time carrying over far beyond the grade or course completion date.    I will provide a link to some deeper dives into each of these books in the near future as part of the ARPDC (Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia) work in support of Curriculum and Instruction.  You can click here to access further resources at ARPDC related to the work in Alberta.


John Almarode’s “From Snorkelers to Scuba Divers” provides an extended metaphor of the process of taking students deeper into their learning and helping them make the connections from concept to concept as they expand their understanding.  A math science focus across all three books John’s also provided writing and a couple of videos on the importance of clarity, from the teacher, for the students to better succeed.  John’s website includes handouts, articles and blog posts – well worth the visit.


Lynn Erickson, Lois Lanning, Rachel French’s work is perhaps the foundational work in the field of Concept-based focused curriculum and instruction.  Lynn Erickson, in particular, pioneered the work and teamed up with Lois Lanning specifically as it connected with literacy.  Concept-based as a term has been foundational to their work, curriculum and unit planning.


Ron Ritchart’s work on Visible Thinking and Creating Cultures of Thinking are must-read books as you enter into the process of helping students see their thinking and wrestle through the relationships of various concepts across all subjects.  Visit Ron’s website to access many more articles and resources. Visit Project Zero – the deep dive into thinking classrooms – here.

Julie Stern has written two books, the first for elementary the second with a secondary approach that helps teachers with the operationalizing of concept-focused work in the day-to-day work of the classroom with examples across multiple subjects and a chapter in each book on assessment models.  (Another book is on the way as Julie’s writing a Social Studies edition for the Visible Learning series discussed later) One of the real strengths in these two books and Julie’s work is the focus on layering the work of concept-focused conversations within some of our other existing pedagogical approaches such as project-based work and the workshop model.  I particularly enjoy the notion that with a sound conceptual understanding (and all the aspects of learning that works from surface to deeper learning and transfer of understanding) students are better positioned to succeed in their project work with finished products they truly “own” and understand.  This makes the process of striving for conceptual understanding in anything we’re studying a key part of the engine of learning that is owned and operated by the student(s).  Come back to this idea when/if you find yourself reading, Ron Berger’s book “An Ethic of Excellence” discussed below. Visit Julie’s website “Education to Save the World” here.

Tiffanee Brown literacy

Tiffany Brown co-wrote this book with Lois Lanning helping teachers design lessons and units specifically with a literacy lens to the work of concept-based practice.   The grade range is a rather unique 4-10 providing middle school teachers with great work but foundational practices up through high school as well.  Tiffanee’s Website 

Inquiry French Marschall

Carla Marschall and Rachel French teamed up on this book which looks to merge Inquiry-based learning with Concept-based learning.  Foundational to this merger is the conversation around active questioning to drive the learning on the inquiry side of the merger while using the concept-based focus to help take the learning and discoveries of inquiry and better transfer that learning or understanding to a variety of new or related environments or situations.  As you work through parts of all these books you find common threads, which stands to reason naturally, I think the near and far transfer conversations in the visible learning books really help clarify that some of our advances on any concept or subject are very natural – rollover to crawl to pull yourself up to stagger a step  -baby steps of learning and some really challenge us to see how one idea bridges a large gap to connect to another.

Concept math

Secondary Math teachers here’s one just for you, Jennifer Wathall’s Concept-Based Mathematics: Teaching for Deep Understanding in Secondary Classrooms.  I freely acknowledge I’m much more of a humanities background soul but Jennifer provides concrete examples and guidance for teachers of Mathematics as they work at identifying concepts, building generalizations, assessing what students understand and can transfer with additional information on integrating technology thrown in for good measure.

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James Nottingham’s The Learning Challenge provides further understanding on the nature of teaching conceptually.  I enjoy his expended metaphor of the learning pit and the challenge for students to get into the process of their learning.  There are a couple of videos James has posted on YouTube included on my playlist linked below.  James’ Website is here.

John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey

The Visible Learning “franchise” has three primary authors leading the way, John Hattie, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  These books provide excellent specific examples that enhance one’s understanding of how to operationalize learning for deeper understanding and transfer across and within-subjects.  Julie Stern is currently writing a Social Studies focused Visible Learning book for the series.   Doug and Nancy’s Teacher Clarity Handbook is an excellent resource with each chapter providing specific activities for educators.  Visit their website for further resources here.

Assessment brookhart

Julie Stern recommends Susan Brookhart’s How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom as the go-to book for assessment practices in support of a concept focused lesson, unit or curriculum.  Susan has written several books and articles on the subject of assessment over her career as an educator and author.

ethic of excellence

Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence

And then there’s Ron Berger’s work that I believe really can be leveraged through a concept focused approach to take our collective learning to another level.  As a bit of an aside, I should point out that IB programs’ early years, middle school and IB at the high school level embrace much of what is foundational to a concept-based/concept focused approach to learning.  IB was not, and the early and middle years being school-wide programs highlight this, intended as an honours program, it’s a way of thinking, of teaching and learning.

Don’t try to eat the whole elephant in one bite – chapters – passages, even keyword searches if you’re reading the books on your e-reader, kindle etc.   There is a lot to digest but you’ll love the information and your students will benefit from the work.

Check out my YouTube playlist of concept-based/concept-focused videos here.