Conceptual Learning in IB Biology

If you’re an IB Biology teacher here’s a challenge (or perhaps not):

  • List and describe the four basic biological concepts that run through the discipline of Biology.

Got it? Here they are (highlight to see):

  • Structure & Function
  • Universality versus Diversity
  • Equilibrium within Systems
  • Evolution

They are on page 40 on the subject guide. 

Teachers in MYP schools will be well aware of the concept-based nature of the Next Chapter as it arrives, but in reality it may already be here in our classes. How many times do we ask students how the knowledge we have gathered in a lesson or sequence connects to other knowledge, looking for commonalities and themes? This, in a simple way, is teaching for conceptual understanding*. We want students to be able to recognise concepts in new content – the universal nature of the genetic code and the diversity it facilitates; adaptations to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium) within living systems, the relationships we see between structure and function in all living systems and the process of evolution by natural selection that underpins them all.

I want to make it a personal goal this year to be more explicit in the learning of the big ideas of Biology: the concepts. We’ll start this week with  a group task for students to try to connect these concepts to their latent understandings of Biology and we’ll build from there.

Some ideas for teaching the concepts in Biology:

  • Jigsaw tasks for students in different groups as we review a unit: one group for each concept who need to explain how the content of the unit feeds into that one conceptual understanding.
  • Connect-extend-challenge (a visible thinking routine**). As we build a body of biological knowledge students can reflect and review based on how this connects to each of the four concepts, how they might extend their understanding with deeper questions and what they have found challenging in the unit/ lesson.
  • Concept walls: spaces in different parts of the classroom where students might pin their thoughts on the topic (or post post-its).

If you have more ideas for how to use the concepts of biology to strengthen students’ understanding, please share!



Further Reading

* ‘Teaching the Disciplines – Nurturing big Ideas for Deeper Understanding’ is an excellent document from the MYP section of the OCC. Read the section on the sciences.

**Harvard’s Project Zero has a fantastic set of thinking routines to make thinking visible. Try them out!

About Stephen

International Educator: China via Japan, Indonesia & the UK. Director of Innovation in Learning & Teaching. Science educator. Twitterist (@sjtylr), dad and bloggerer. MA International Education & current EdD student. Experienced Director of Learning & MYP Coordinator. Interested in curriculum, pedagogy, purposeful EdTech and global competence. Find out more: Science site:

Posted on August 28, 2013, in IBDP Biology, Teaching & Pedagogy. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dear Stephen,
    Firstly, thank you for your excellent presentations. Have saved me a lot of time, and are very clear for the students to understand. Secondly, I have made a donation to Medicine Sans Frontier. Please could I gain access to the restricted ppts? Namely the mieosis one. Many thanks, Izzi

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