10 May 2018

What is it?

We learn new knowledge by tethering it to what we already know.  In other words, prior knowledge is essential to learning.  Many of the concepts we teach are fairly abstract in nature, and in seeking to help students understand them we can exploit the dynamic between new and existing knowledge by using a concrete example.  This involves finding an example that students know well and connecting it to the new idea that you are teaching.

To exemplify this, If you wanted to teach students what a Pomelo fruit (pictured below) was, when first describing one it would be better to say: “It is like a large grapefruit but with green skin and pink flesh”, rather than:  “It is 30cm in circumference, green and weighs about 100 grams.”  In this example the grapefruit is the concrete example.

What does the evidence say?

Daniel Willingham wrote about the importance of using examples in his book Why Don’t Students Like School.  He explained how the brain favours what is concrete over what is abstract, and therefore concrete examples are actively sought out by learners when trying to understand something.  He summarised this idea in the following quote:

“We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

The idea has also been included as one of the Learning Scientist’s six effective study principles.  They exemplify this by explaining the abstract concept of scarcity through the following concrete example:

“Think about an airline company. If you were to try and book a flight four months in advance, the ticket prices would probably be pretty reasonable. But as it gets closer to the date of travel, there will be fewer seats left on the plane (the seats are more rare). This scarcity drives up the cost (value) of the tickets. This is a concrete example of scarcity, which is an abstract idea.”

How can teachers mobilise the evidence?

  • Come up with a set of concrete examples that match the abstract concepts you teach.  Agree on these collaboratively and use them across all classes within a department.
  • Return to these concrete examples regularly and use them as the anchor for these concepts.
  • Consider which concrete examples would be most familiar to the students you teach.  If they don’t understand the concrete example the positive effect will be lost, you will be instead be teaching two new concepts!
  • Analogies can be used as useful concrete examples.

Further reading:

Willingham, Daniel (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School

Learning to Study Using… Concrete Examples – The Learning Scientists

Paivio, A., Walsh, M., & Bons, T. (1994). Concreteness effects on memory: When and why? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1196-1204.

Posted on 10 May 2018
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