What’s the Difference? Concepts vs. Principles

In my first year of teaching, I quickly recognized that the class text was filled with a plethora of facts that were impossible to sufficiently uncover within the time frame allotted in the school year. Consequently, I had to quickly determine what was worth teaching and what could be ignored. Thus, my journey to skillfully write and effectively implement quality curricula,  (i.e. one that thoroughly prepared students to demonstrate mastery on standardized exams and provided the prerequisite knowledge and skills for college), had begun.  From reading Robert Marzano’s Dimensions of Learning (DoL), I immediately recognized that at the heart of all curricula are concepts and principles. Concepts and principles dictate what is worth teaching in a given curriculum. Also, concepts and principles provide an organizational scheme of how to uncover knowledge to facilitate learning.

According to Marzano,  concepts are “single words or phrases that label entire classes or categories of persons, places, living and nonliving things, and events.” Concepts can be cross-disciplinary or domain-specific.  They have key characteristics that are shared by all examples of given concepts. These characteristics consist of the knowledge that is worth knowing or understanding; and therefore, is worth teaching.

In my biology curriculum, a domain-specific concept is the “single word” protein. All proteins share the following characteristics: they are made of amino acids; the order and sequence of their amino acids are unique; their sequence and functions are determined by DNA; they are made by ribosomes; their shape is important to their function. As a result, all proteins (i.e. hormones, enzymes, antibodies,  and receptors) that we encounter in the class must possess these characteristics. First, we uncover these characteristics in a series of lessons. Later in addressing the various proteins in their respective units, we emphasize similarities (i.e. characteristics) and also compare them in terms of their differences. Thus, students have several opportunities to revisit and review the key characteristics of proteins when learning about specific examples throughout the year. Also, I use this as an opportunity to reteach or emphasize salient points that students may have found problematic during the initial study of proteins, while still adhering to the curriculum schedule.

A cross-disciplinary concept in my biology curriculum is cycle.  All cycles share the following characteristics: they repeat themselves; they exhibit a pattern; and they are predictable. As a result, when studying the menstrual cycle, we examine the major events for these features. Students interpret the cycle from 3 perspectives (i.e. hormones, egg, and uterus).  These characteristics facilitate students’ recognition of repetitious and predictable patterns displayed by each participating hormone, the egg, and the uterus. This is accomplished by providing students with an organizational framework for recalling and interpreting information displayed in the cycle. In addition, these characteristics also serve as mental checklists for me to develop and assess learning experiences that facilitate internalization of the knowledge and skills being addressed by the concept as it pertains to the unit.

In contrast, principles are statements that “articulate rules or relationships that can be applied to a number of specific situations.” In essence, they are abstract statements that identify characteristics of classes or categories of persons, places, living and nonliving things, and events. While concepts provide the label for a class or category, principles provide the abstract statements or characteristics.

In the biology curriculum, a principle that we study is proteins (i.e. enzymes, antibody, and receptors) have a complementary shape to their target molecules (i.e. substrate, antigen, and hormones/neurotransmitters). Therefore, in every unit where these respective proteins are addressed, I know it’s vital to provide students with learning experiences to symbolically represent the interaction that exists between the protein of interest and its target molecule.  With each transition from unit to unit where these proteins are addressed, students recognize the relationship and make essential connections across units. As a result, when students encounter new proteins, they can use this characteristic to make logical predictions about the behavior of the protein.

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