Teaching in the Third Dimension: Moving into Concept-based Curriculum

This post is a quick organisation of thoughts based on the new position paper by the IB. There is more in the paper than is discussed here, so please head over to the IB’s Position Papers site to read it.


3D Instruction
3D Instruction, by H. Lynn Erickson

Recently the IB released a position paper written by H. Lynn Erickson on Concept-based teaching and learning. In this brief pdf, she outlines the key ideas behind concept-based curriculum and how the IB programmes are (or are becoming) concept-based and three-dimensional. She compares traditional two-dimensional instruction (facts and skills-based, with assumed conceptual understanding) and three-dimensional instruction (concepts, principles and generalisations are supported by facts and skills) and outlines some key pedagogical shifts which will be required in making the transition from the 2D to the 3D model, which will allow for synergistic thinking and transfer of knowledge and skills.

She defines levels of ‘concepts’ which should be used in planning the curriculum:

  • Key concepts, which are timeless macro-ideas that transcend disciplines (such as order, systems, change).
  • Related concepts, which are discipline-specific and build depth of understanding in the subject area.
  • Additional conceptual understandings, “supporting ideas“, which are five to eight concepts per unit designed to guide formative work.

It is clear from this model that the emphasis on concepts and global contexts should drive the unit of inquiry, though students should quickly see the disciplinary relevance of the concept and build depth in their understanding. What remains somewhat unclear to me is the form of the ‘supporting ideas’ – should they be phrased as assessment statements, questions or generalisations related to the unit?


This table is a useful comparison of 2D and 3D instruction, and got me thinking again about the culminating years of the MYP. It is here we see the greatest tension between the ‘old school’ and the new, as students come to the end of the highly inquiry-driven MYP and prepare for an arguably much more content-driven experience in the Diploma Programme.

Comparing 2D (facts and skills-based) and 3D (concept-based) instruction. From "Concept-based teaching and learning"
Comparing 2D (facts and skills-based) and 3D (concept-based) instruction. From “Concept-based teaching and learning”

Where would you place your class? Where you would place a DP science class or a DP Visual Arts class? An MYP 1 class or an MYP 5 class? Which elements of each class are stuck in 2D instruction and which are in the third dimension? Does this change as the programmes progress and the stakes get higher?

Clearly teachers and curriculum leaders are going to need support in teaching in the third dimension. For some this represents a fundamental shift in the way they think about curriculum and pedagogy. I look forward to seeing how the next generation of workshops offered by the IB are tailored to meet the needs of teachers as the Next Chapter kicks in, as well as how they make use of pedagogical leaders in schools, regions and subject areas to help others in making the transition.



H. Lynn Erickson: Concept-based teaching and learning. IB Position Paper.

H. Lynn Erickson: Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press.







3 responses to “Teaching in the Third Dimension: Moving into Concept-based Curriculum”

  1. Joe Avatar

    Thanks for the post.
    One comment I have regarding IB position papers; is that they need to be more accessible to all teachers. By ‘accessible’ I mean they need to be written in a less technical (and less philosophical) manner. The aim of the IB program should be to cast its net as wide as possible. Meaning, it needs to give as many teachers as possible – access to its reports and documents, but these need to have clear and concise meaning. Unfortunately it seems the authors of many IB publications use technical English, wrapped in jargon and served in philosophical thoughts. This makes many publications unapproachable for many teachers, from developing countries. I urgently request the IB management look at remedying this.

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the comment, and I would tend to agree with you. On the one hand the academic nature of some of the position papers shows their research base and might give more credibility to their message, where on the other they could be alienating their audience. I’m not an IB faculty member, but I’d be interested to see their feedback to your post.

      Perhaps they could dedicate some sections of IB World magazine to more accesible write-ups of their position papers. Some are posted on , which would be a great opportunity for a good write-up and discussion on the papers as they’re published. They could get some bloggers from the IB World to write their take on the papers (students, faculty, school leaders, parents etc).

      I would also like to see far more of these posts from the IB – they have a lot of good work locked up on the OCC, which coud really be ‘out there’ spreading the word.

      Thanks again Joe,


  2. […] units (thanks to @iBiologyStephen for an inspirational blog post on this; also his thoughts on curriculum planning in general).  I managed to get through the following units this […]

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