A concrete plan to explore the abstract

17th May 2013 at 01:00
Teaching - in all areas of the curriculum - involves concepts. Help your students to access, understand and use intangible ideas. Mike Gershon explains how

The job of a teacher, regardless of subject, involves communicating concepts. These abstract ideas - with no single, objective interpretation - can prove troublesome.

How, for example, do you explain courage? There is behaviour that we can point to and say "that person is being courageous" or "that is an example of courage", but there is no single, universal interpretation of what courage is. What about "loveliness", "good" or "choice"? People can have vastly different views on what those words mean, too. Concepts are usually contestable like this; they are not objectively provable one way or the other.

Yet concepts are integral to our language, to how we communicate and to our understanding of each other, ourselves and the wider world. Hence, they are also infused in the fibres of every subject area. So how do you go about teaching something so hard to pin down? Fortunately, there are a number of transferable activities that you can use to bring concepts to life in any lesson.

Case studies are great for helping students to access, understand and use new concepts (or refine their use of existing ones). They make use of the simplicity and accessibility of concrete thought to present students with a route into more abstract and difficult ideas.

In a geography lesson, for example, we may be introducing students to the idea of deindustrialisation. Simply learning the definition of the concept, coupled with a range of illustrative facts around a historical period when it occurred, may mean that the student reaches a position where they can describe the meaning of the word - as well as repeat the examples that illustrate it - but they will not have begun to understand the concept in real terms.

A case study can mitigate that. For example, we may present students with a resource explaining the impact of deindustrialisation on the mining communities of South Wales in the UK. This would include an explanation of what actually happened there, along with a series of stories explaining the impact this had on individuals such as miners, local shopkeepers and young children.

Such a resource serves two purposes. First, it provides students with a means of contextualising the concept of deindustrialisation, enabling them to flesh out their basic understanding of what the word means. Second, the case study contains a range of concrete material. This provides a recognisable path that helps to lead students towards more complex ideas.

A second tool to call on when introducing students to concepts is narrative. Storytelling is a powerful means through which to introduce new and complex ideas. Take, for instance, the teaching of the concept of human rights. There is a great deal of abstract information for students to absorb, with each of the 30 rights predicated on various concepts such as free speech, religion and freedom.

Narratives give students a way through this conceptual minefield. For example, the charities Amnesty International and Oxfam provide teaching materials that centre on individuals or groups who have suffered human rights abuses. These narratives introduce students to the idea of human rights (as well as the ideas behind it) through, for example, the concrete experience of a child in a war-torn country.

Additional activities

While narrative and case studies are the two primary routes into concepts for students, three other activities are worth employing, too.

First, card sorting can be very effective. Ask students to work in pairs or threes. Provide each group with a set of cards on which a series of different concepts connected to the lesson are written. Challenge students to do one or more of the following: match the concepts; sort the concepts into groups; or rank the concepts according to a set of criteria (for example, most to least important).

Whatever you ask students to do, be sure to remind them that they will need to justify their decisions using reasons, examples and evidence. The cards allow students to manipulate concepts physically. This is easier than dealing with them in a purely abstract sense.

The second method is real-world scenarios. Using relevant real-world scenarios in the classroom gives students the opportunity to put their conceptual understanding to the test. For example, in an English lesson you could explain to students that there has been a major terrorist threat detected within the UK and that the prime minister has asked for help in drafting an appropriate speech in response. Students will have to call on their understanding of concepts such as fear, safety and anger in order to do this, which will test their abstract thought.

Finally, there is making models. Ask students to work in pairs. Give each pair some material that they can use to make a model of one of the concepts connected to the lesson. Allow between three and five minutes for this. When the time is up, ask half the class to remain seated. The remaining students walk around the room, visiting various models. They engage their peers in discussion about the models as they go. The halves then swap over and repeat the process.

The activity has two major benefits. First, it gives students the chance to create a physical manifestation of a concept, reinforcing and refining their understanding of it. Second, when the students are walking around the room and engaging each other in discussion about the models, they are actually talking about the concepts. This further develops their understanding by making them think in more depth.

Pushing further

Once these introductions to concepts have been made, you can then challenge students to push their understanding further. When they use concepts in class, you can question that usage to force them to think more carefully about what they are saying. You can also ask them to consider context: a football fan's use of the word "good" may differ from a surgeon's use. Understanding how context can change a concept leads to a more in-depth understanding of its usage and interpretation.

Discussion is another useful tool. You can tailor activities such as speed debating, formal debates and speech-writing so that students are doing specific things with specific concepts. This may include evaluating, analysing or defending. In any case, they will be developing their understanding further and building more detailed mental maps connected to the idea in question.

Concepts, then, are tricky for teachers, but there are many ways into conceptual thinking that make it easier for students to manipulate, understand and critique the various notions they encounter. In so doing, we provide them with a means by which to think more clearly, more logically and more effectively - which is very much what we are employed to do.

Mike Gershon is a teacher, trainer and writer. He has written seven books on pedagogy, all of which are available at Amazon.co.uk


- Concepts are a tricky area for teachers as they have no single, universal explanation or interpretation.

- Understanding of concepts is crucial to a student's ability to think clearly, logically and effectively.

- There are a number of ways for teachers to aid a student's understanding of concepts: case studies, narratives, real-world scenarios, card sorting and modelling. Each of these provides a way into concepts through more physical, concrete terms.

- Once students have grasped the concepts by means of these methods, use discussions to extend their understanding by challenging their usage of the concepts, particularly with regard to the context in which they are being employed.


For more on this topic, follow this link to the TESConnect website:

Liz Lightfoot explores the benefits of philosophy for children. bit.lySchoolPhilosophy.

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