Moving from examples to understanding an abstract concept

Through my lessons this year, I have been working on strategies to help my students to both identify and understand concepts more deeply. As Economics is founded on theories and interconnected abstract concepts, it is therefore a key pedagogy we teachers need to be proficient with. In the work of Lynn Erickson and other theorists, this begins with the idea of concept acquisition. This post outlines two connected approaches that I find useful.

  • sort, organise and grouping examples
  • Frayer Model – definition, characteristics, examples, non-examples

As explained by Erickson, concepts are mental constructs that are abstract, timeless and universal. (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p.33) They can be either broad in their context such as the concepts of change, interdependence or systems which are potentially interdisciplinary in nature or subject specific concepts such as complements, substitutes or unemployment like we look at in Economics. These are also distinguished as macro or micro concepts, where micro concepts connect to the depth of subject knowledge in each discipline.

Teaching to support conceptual acquisition:

One activity I see and utilise frequently is the classic sort, organise and group activity where you provide a wide arrange of examples relating to the concept and get students to identify similarities, differences and connections. In this case I was scaffolding students towards an understanding that:

products are related and the price change in one product can impact demand of related products. eg. complements and subsitutes

In this case students quickly grasp the idea of products being substitutable or complementary to each other, but they often muddle the nuances of the relationship and the relative strengths of connections between goods. The aim of the activity is to look at the different types of goods and place close complements together eg. playstation, a game and a tv and then also group examples of close substitutes. (cough lozenges and cough syrup)

Analog vs Digital?

I have explored lots of digital approaches to this sorting activity and yet feel the analog and tactile approach is more effective. Below is a screenshot from Google Slides where you can give students the collection of images and they sort into categories left and right, but after trying both approaches, I feel the learning become less collaborative and students are not inclined to speak as they move and group examples on their screen. The quality of the dialogue, visibility of each other’s work was better with cut outs and poster paper where I could circulate and observe.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 9.13.50 AM

Consolidating understanding

A perfect follow on activity is to use a diagram called the Frayer Model to get the students to record their understanding. The Frayer Model is essentially a graphical organiser you can use to capture either prior knowledge about a concept as a pre-assessment, to capture thinking after an activity, or as a tool to revisit and refine as students learn more about the concept through an inquiry.

  • an operational definition; in subject terminology what does the idea mean?
  • characteristics; what are the unique properties of the word that are shared by the examples.
  • examples; in what examples are these properties clearly illustrated?
  • non-examples; in what examples are these properties not illustrated?

The prompt asking students to list non-examples is really important as this is where you can identify some misconceptions. For instance peanut butter and jam (or jelly) might seems to be a complement for some people, but might be substitutes for others and a non-example.

Capturing the thinking

You can of facilitate this in different ways e.g. pairs, groups on poster paper, but I have found using a Google Slides template as an effective way of scaffolding the students but also being able to track their work. It is a good tool where you can give comments, and where students can go back to as the learning progresses and make changes. It is also useful if you want students to scroll and see other students examples and ideas.

Together the two approaches are an important tool to help students build understanding which can later help them transfer and apply ideas to other situations.

Other related posts to explore:

The following are posts written by colleagues at the East Campus of United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. These cover the same ideas but from different subject angles.

  1. Open Sorting for Concept Formation
  2. Learning Concept words in EAL and transfer strategies
  3. Concept acquisition and misconceptions




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