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3 Types of Concepts

Updated: May 19, 2022

In general we have tended towards classifying concepts into two types, macro and micro, or in IB speak key and related. One type reaches across disciplinary boundaries, aiding transfer of ideas. The other is more disciplinary specific and supports greater depth in understanding.

With only two categories we have limited our thinking about concepts to two functions: transfer and depth of understanding.

Recently I realised that there is another major function that concepts have that is not represented in this categorisation: concepts support self referencing meaning making. This is different to transfer as it not the movement of an idea from one context to another. It is the function of gathering a range of ideas under a common theme, reviewing and reflecting on these ideas and forming one's own interpretation and personal relevance to said theme.

It is accurate to label these different types concepts as Transdisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Disciplinary. Knowing about these helps us to pick the right tool for the right purpose.

Transdisciplinary Concepts

Transdisciplinary concepts are accessible from all areas of the curriculum . They are concepts that identify crucial aspects of the human experience. Whilst shared, in the sense that all subjects have something to say about them, they are diverse in the sense that how we think about them differs from person to person, community to community, culture to culture.

Crucially they are less focussed on Transfer as the interdisciplinary concepts, they are more focussed on Transcendence. They are there to help students build their own narratives of meaning rather than to transfer an established idea to a new context.

We need their presence in the curriculum to support students in making personal meaning from the things that we talk and learn about. These are high end products in light of the importance of the process of making meaning from learning experiences. For a concise understanding of this emerging field I encourage you to read this article from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

The number of these are immense (I'll wager most of the key and related concepts identified actually sit in this group as they are often universal in nature yet interpretable in application) but because there is value in using shared concepts I have attempted to select the most encompassing eleven concepts. I believe the centre two get to the absolute core of the human decision making experience - do I need to protect what we currently have or do we need to change things to get where we want to be. The other nine are there to unpack this dilemma. Beneath these are a range of possible other supporting concepts - they are more specific but they remain universally accessible yet interpretable. I wouldn't want these too definitive as I feel certain that a large number of key and related concepts not referred to could fit here.

The transdisciplinary concepts I propose are:

They have been chosen to overlap with the 'My Place in the Story' framework.

Interdisciplinary Concepts

These are elusive. They have a really tough job to do. These are the concepts that have the job of supporting the transfer of ideas from one subject to another. The transfer needs to offer fidelity (though the application of the idea is open to interpretation to the new context). This transfer is tricky to ensure, so much so in fact that some folks are unconvinced in their efficacy.

For a long time in my thinking I think I was mixing up these types of concepts with the aforementioned transdisciplinary concepts. The problem with that is that transdisciplinary concepts are broad interpretable ideas. These do not good vessels for transfer with fidelity.

Instead, we should be looking to the idea of super concepts. These are concepts that were developed by Alan Wilson. They are concepts that are first created in the disciplines to explain an important phenomena but then they are found to have analogous resonance in other subjects too.

The reason I have such confidence in super concepts is precisely this analogous relationship that they build. Analogies have long been shown to be the most successful modes of transfer.

A classic example is evolution the evolving of a thing into something that best matches the context it finds itself in. In the original context this was a biological life form, however it works to explain how artistic genres adapt and change, how politics develops over time etc etc.

Another example is entropy this is an absolute favourite chemistry concept but its interdisciplinary reach is fascinating.

Disciplinary concepts

In a sense this brings us to the need for a definition. What is a concept?

Whilst I recognise that in the cognitive sciences concepts are depicted at a basic level, where even the word 'chair' is seen as a concept. Here the definition of a concept is that of any representation of reality. For me, I prefer a more practical for the classroom definition, a concept is any idea that has explanatory power.

This means that, still, every discipline is littered with concepts. There are as many as there are explanations.

To my thinking then we should not be trying to define them all. That said, into this fray there are some special types of disciplinary concepts. There are those concepts that once you realise them your world changes. You can't unthink them and they change your thinking. These concepts are called threshold concepts.

As an example a concept in chemistry is the idea that atoms differ in terms of the number of protons, neutrons and electrons they have (each element being one in which the number of protons is different). This idea explains a bunch of stuff but it is not exactly world changing to a student. If you then point out that the current explanation of the atom itself is that the nucleus houses the protons and neutrons and the tiny electrons orbit this nucleus and that 99.99% of the volume of the atom is nothing this leads to a world changing idea. Since atoms make up everything then 99.99% of everything is made of nothing. The universe is held together by electrostatics. This mind blowing idea is a threshold concept and forms the basis of more advanced chemistry understanding.

Relevance to the IB

I hope it can be self evident that no type of concept is more important than the others and that this doesn't change with age. We want learners who can understand crucial ideas in the disciplines, who can make links between ideas across disciplines and who can build ideas into a paradigm that makes sense of the world. We need all three types of concept throughout K-12 learning.

Some will have heard that PYP, MYP and DP classify themselves as transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary. These are to me more an indication of programme design (indeed the aspects that they have included for assessment) than on what is valuable in learning.

In categorising themselves this way I believe this has influenced how each programme has interpreted the purpose of key concepts. Each programme has roughly speaking taken a Transdisciplinary, Interdisciplinary or Disciplinary approach to their understanding of key concepts. The problem is this leads to a lack of coherence of key concepts across the Continuum.

The designation of related concepts has not helped matters as it is unclear as to whether they perform a disciplinary or interdisciplinary role.

Concepts as part of the Continuum Taxonomy

I believe it would be helpful to designate these 3 types of concept into the IB Continuum. Each programme can draw from each type of concept. The specific insights of disciplinary concepts can contribute to the transfer of ideas through the interdisciplinary concepts and they each contribute to a student's overall understanding of their works and their place in it, through the transdisciplinary concepts.

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