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CONCEPT LEARNING:

How To Make It
Happen In The
Classroom
SYDELLE D. EHRENBERG
espite much talk about con ing concepts differs significantly from learn concepts, or, if they know bet
D cept-centered curricu'um, too
many students still just learn
facts. Teachers report, and tests show,
those appropriate for fact, principle,
attitude, and skill learning. Lack of
understanding of those differences on
ter, are burdened with the task of
revising or even developing the cur
riculum from scratch.
that even those students who seem to part of the curriculum developer or These may not be the only reasons
have learned concepts often fail to the teacher could certainly contrib students are not learning concepts as
apply them to new out similar situa ute to student failure to learn con well as we think they should, but
tions. cepts. since these factors are under control,
Let's explore some of the possible they should be addressed and, to the
reasons. extent possible, eliminated.
Following are some ideas about
Different Concepts of "Concept" concept learning and teaching which
One reason may be that educators over the past twelve years many
haven't been sufficiently clear and educators have learned and success
consistent about what they think a fully applied. Their success came not
concept is. They haven't distinguished from merely reading about or listen
between concepts and other things ing to these ideas, but as a result
they want students to learn, such as of hard work during and after inten
facts, principles, attitudes, and skills. sive training in a staff development
Fuzziness or lack of common under program called BASICS. This pro
standing among curriculum develop gram and its predecessor, The Hilda
ers, teachers, and testers about what Taba Teaching Strategies Program,
a concept is could well account for focus on the thinking strategies stu
disparity among what is taught, dents need to learn to achieve each
learned, and tested. of the basic types of learning objec
Inadequate or Inappropriate tives of any curriculum: concepts,
Lack of Understanding of Concept Curriculum Material principles, attitudes, and skills.
Learning/Teaching Processes
Curriculum guides, teachers' man
Another reason may be the assump What is a Concept?
uals, and student materials may not
tion that concepts are learned (and contain enough of the right kind of Following are three examples o f con
therefore should be taught) in the information. Neither commercial nor cepts.
same way facts are learned. While locally-developed curriculums may
much attention has been given to 1. Any plane, closed figure having
be thorough enough in identifying, just three sides;
differences in individual student learn defining, and relating the concepts
ing "styles" (preferences related to students are expected to learn; of 2. Any body of land bordered on
gathering i nformation), very little has outlining appropriate concept-learn all sides by water;
been focused on the differences in ing processes; or of presenting the 3. Any invertebrate having just
various learning "strategies" (proce kind of information students need in three body parts and exactly six legs.
dures for processing i nformation). order to form concepts. Too often, First, observe what each state
The process for learning and teach- the concept is just "presented" (as ment says. Noting the differences
though it were a fact). Teachers who among them. Then decide what is
Sydelle D. Ehrenberg is Associate Direc have to work with an inadequate or true of all three statements. What
tor, Institute for Curriculum and In inappropriate curriculum may well is true of all three is what makes
struction, Coral Gables, Florida. be misled as to how to help students all of them examples of "concept."
36 EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
To learn a concept, students must
form a clear mental image of how ex
amples differ from nonexamples.

Now focus on the following three but does not state the set of char amples from nonexamples.
items. None of the three is a concept. acteristics common to any and all Concept Label—one or more
examples. Item "c" gives the name of terms used to refer to any and all
a. S \ ABC is a plane, one example of concept #3, insect, examples of a given concept.
closed figure having three sides. but it does not state the characteristics Examples any and all individual
b. island common to any and all examples of items that have the characteristics of
insects, distinguishing all insects from a given concept (class).
c. ant any non-insect. Nonexamples any and all indi
Based on the above, consider the vidual items that may have some but
Consider items "a," "b," and "c"
following definitions and examples: not all the characteristics that make
one at a time. Compare and contrast
each with the concept examples ( # 1 , Concept— the set of attributes or items examples of a given concept
#2, and #3) and decide why "a," characteristics common to any and all (class).
"b," and "c" are not examples of a instances (people, objects, events, The concept is the set of charac
concept. Item "a" states certain facts ideas) of a given class (type, kind, teristics, not the label. A person can
about figure ABC its characteristics category) know the label for a concept without
but it does not state the character or knowing the characteristics of any
istics common to any and all examples the characteristics that make cer and all examples and vice versa. A
of that type of figure. Item "b" gives tain items examples of a type of thing concept is not the same as a fact. A
the English label for a type of thing and that distinguish any and all ex- fact is verifiable information about
an individual item, while a concept
is a generalization in a person's mind
about what is true of any and all
items (even those the person has
never seen) that are examples of the
same class.
A few additional points about con
Figure 1. Concept Examples.
cepts:
Concept
Label Concept Characteristics Examples Nonexamples All concepts are abstract. This is
nightgown carpet
so because a concept constitutes a
Compound any word whose meaning is a combi-
Word nation of the meanings of the root oversee begun generalized mental image of the
words of which it is composed doorknob understood characteristics that make items ex
Fruit the part of any plant that contains the apple potato amples. However, the characteristics
seedfs) tomato celery of individual items may be either
squash carrot concrete ( all of the characteristics
Improper any fraction whose numerator is equal 8 7 are perceivable, as in an apple) or
Fractions to or greater than its denominator 7 8 represented in some way. A repre
16 4
sentation may be quite "concrete"
16
(many of the characteristics are per
16
ceivable, as in a model, film, or
4 1
photo) or quite "abstract" (few or
1 T none of the characteristics are per
ceivable as in a diagram, symbol,
spoken or written description). A
common misconception is that young

OCTOBER 1981 37
"Not only that but, by virtue of the unique
characteristics that distinguish him from other mongrels in
the world, Spot is himself a concept (in a class by himself)."

38 EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
children cannot conceptualize be
cause they cannot yet form abstract
Figure 2. Levels of Learning.
ideas. Actually, young children can
and do conceptualize but only when
the characteristics of examples of the
concept arc perceivable directly
through the senses and they have the
opportunity to perceive those charac
teristics firsthand in several individual
items. They need these sense percep
tions to form the generalized mental
picture of the characteristics. (Is it
any wonder that young children have
so much trouble forming such con
cepts as "sharing and "tidiness"?)
Concepts cannot be verified, like
facts, as being "right" or "wrong."
Although it is difficult for us to real
ize, our concepts are not what is but
what we have learned to think is. As
a cultural group, over time, we decide
what things are and what to call
them. We store our current sets of
characteristics and the concept labels
that go with them in the dictionary
and this becomes our "authority" to
arbitrate any dispute. However, we
all know how dictionaries differ and
that dictionaries need to be updated
periodically to keep up with our
changing concepts and concept labels
and to add concepts that arc newly-
developed and commonly agreed on. from other mongrels in the world. principle is the learner's demonstrated
If you want to test this idea about Spot is himself a concept (in a class ability to make well-supported and
concepts, see how many different ex by himself). qualified inferences of either cause or
planations you get when you ask sev We've already made the distinction effect in new or changed situations.
eral people whether each of the fol between "concept" and "fact." Let's 4. A ttitude: M ental set toward tak
lowing is a "family" and why they now consider the relationship be ing some action based on the desir
think it is or is not: tween concepts and the other types ability of anticipated consequences.
A husband and wife with no of learning: principles, attitudes, and Evidence of attitude learning is newly-
children skills. acquired willingness to take (or re
Several friends sharing the same 1. Fact: Verifiable information ob frain from) an action based on the
home tained through observing, experienc learner's concept of what the action
Roommates at college ing, reading, or listening. Evidence of is and his or her predictions as to
A separated husband and wife acquisition, comprehension, reten the desirable or undesirable effects of
each having one of their children tion, and retrieval of information is taking (or not taking) the action.
A mother and grown daughter the learner's expression of the speci 5. Skill: Proficiency and speed in
living together. fic, accurate, complete, relevant in performing a mental or physical ac
tion or set of procedures. Evidence
Concepts arc hierarchical' that is, formation called for.
2. Concept: M ental image of the of skill learning is the learner's per
some classes include other classes.
set of characteristics common to any formance of the action/procedures at
Living things include plants and ani
and all examples of a class. Evidence the desired level of proficiency or
mals; animals include vertebrates and
of conceptualization is the learner's speed and, where applicable, a prod
invertebrates; vertebrates include
demonstrated ability to consistently uct that meets desired standards foi
mammals, fish, birds, amphibians,
distinguish examples from nonex- quality and/or quantity. This per
and reptiles; and so on. My dog Spot
amples by citing the presence or ab formance is based on the learner's
is a specific example of every one of
sence of the concept characteristics concept of the action, his or her pre
the classes in the hierarchy until he
in individual items. dictions as to the effects of perform
separates out into the canine class
ing one way or another, and his or
because some of his characteristics 3. Principle: Mental image of the
cause-effect process which, under her internalization of the procedures
distinguish him from examples of
through repeated practice.
feline, equine, and so forth. Not only certain conditions, occurs between
that but, by virtue of the unique examples of two or more concepts. It is important to note, in Figure
characteristics that distinguish him Evidence of understanding of the 2, that concept learning is distinctly

OCTOBFR 1981 39
different from any of the other levels For example, using an inductive what they had read was true of all
of learning; therefore, the evidence strategy from the BASICS Program, contractions. Next, students would be
of achievement is different. You can't, a teacher might have students record asked to identify and verify the
for example, appropriately test under on worksheets information about the characteristics in each of several ex
standing of a concept by having the physical characteristics and life cycles amples of the concept. For instance
learner state facts or perform a skill. of ants, grasshoppers, moths, and the teacher might say, "In the sen
Note also that each level is prere mantises. When the information has tence 'The girl's here' the word 'girl's'
quisite to and an important compo been reported, verified, and recorded is an example of a contraction. Re
nent of the next level of learning. on a large wall chart, the teacher ferring to the definition we just dis
This being the case, fact-learning is would ask questions intended to cussed, what about 'girl's' in this
necessary but not sufficient to con direct students' attention to differ sentence makes it an examp4e of a
cept learning, and concept learning ences among the examples and then contraction?"
is necessary but not sufficient to the to characteristics common to all ex Next, students would be asked to
learning of principles, attitudes, and amples. Students would be asked to note the absence of one or more of
skills. (Paradoxically, the learner formulate a statement specifying the concept characteristics in each of
needs to develop a certain degree of "What is true of all invertebrates like several nonexamples. For example,
thinking, listening, and reading skill these?" the teacher might say, "In the sen
before achieving even the fact-learn tence The girl's coat is here,' the
ing level.) word 'girl's' is not a contraction.
Referring to our definition, what
What Learning/Teaching Strategies about 'girl's' in this sentence makes
Develop Concepts? "You can't, for it not a contraction?"
Fundamental to helping students learn example, appropriately Then students would develop gen
concepts is understanding that con eralized personal statements giving
ceptualizing has to take place in the
test understanding characteristics of all examples of the
mind of the learner. That is, the of a concept by concept and characteristics that dis
learner needs to establish in his/her having the learner tinguish examples from nonexamples.
own mind a mental image of the set Finally, the teacher might have stu
of characteristics that makes some state facts or dents identify which underlined words
thing an example of the concept and perform a skill." in a group of sentences were con
that distinguishes examples from non- tractions and which were not. Stu
examples. If the learner has access dents would be expected to explain
only to the concept label and a defi what made each an example or a
nition (all words), his/her mental nonexample of contractions.
image of the characteristics of ex After giving (or asking students From these samples you can see
amples of the concept may be vague, for) the concept label "insect," the there are certain common elements to
inaccurate, or nonexistent. Being able teacher might have students complete concept-learning strategies:
to accurately state a definition one another worksheet calling for infor
mation about the characteristics of 1. Students must focus on several
has read or heard amounts only to examples and nonexamples of the
fact-level learning, not conceptuali spiders, centipedes, scorpions, and
earthworms. The learning sequence concept.
zation; the learner is only recalling 2. Students must gather and verify
words. would be completed by having stu
dents respond to: information as to the concept-relevant
One who has conceptualized, on characteristics o f each individual ex
the other hand, is able to consistently According to this information, what are
some of the characteristics of these inver ample and nonexample.
identify new examples, create new
examples, distinguish examples from tebrates that make them like insects? 3. Students must note how the ex
nonexamples, change nonexamples
What was true of the insects that is not amples vary and yet are still examples
true of any of these other insect-like inver of the concept.
into examples, and, in every case, is tebrates?
able to explain what he/she has done Based on what you've said here, finish 4. Students must note what is a like
by citing the presence or absence of the statement, "What makes insects dif about all the examples of the con
the concept characteristics. The ferent from other insect-like animals is cept.
learner can do this because he/she 5. Students must generalize that
Identify the animals shown here which what is alike about all the examples
is guided by a clear mental image of you think are insects and the ones you
the characteristics that should be think are not. For each be ready to tell they've examined is also true of all
there. what about the animal made you decide it other examples of the concept.
was or was not an insect. 6. Students must note how the non-
here are a number of strategies Using a deductive (classifying) examples resemble examples, but,

T through which the learner can


be guided so that he/she gathers
the appropriate information, pro
strategy a teacher would first present
information about characteristics of
all examples of the concept (a defini
particularly, how they differ f rom
them.
7. Students must generalize about
cesses the information appropriately, tion) along with the concept label. the characteristics that distinguish a ll
and ends up with his/her own clear For the concept "contraction," for examples of the concept from any
mental image of the concept charac instance, the teacher might ask stu item that might resemble them in
teristics. dents to state in their own words some way.

42 EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
What Should Curriculum Materials the sequence and what the teacher References
Provide? might provide, do, or say to guide
Durkin, Mary, and Hardy, Patricia.
You might find it useful and en students through the conceptualizing Hilda Taba Teaching Strategies Pro
lightening to check a number of cur process. gram. M iami, Fla.: Institute for Staff
riculum guides and text materials to 5. Appropriate concept testing and Development, 1972.
see how concepts are introduced. reinforcing activities should be in Ehrenberg, Sydelle D., and Ehren-
How often is there nothing more cluded (as in our example of having berg, Lyle M. BASICS: Building and
than words: the concept label and a students distinguish contractions Applying Strategies for Intellectual
definition? If examples are presented, from possessives). Each should re Competencies in Students, Participant
are the concept characteristics clearly quire students not only to identify Manual A. Coral Gables, Fla.: Institute
new examples but also to cite the for Curriculum and Instruction, 1978.
identified in each example, or is it
presence (or absence) of the concept Project BASICS. Final Report. Ann
assumed that the reader can and will Arbor, Mich.: Washtenaw Intermediate
identify the right ones? characteristics.
School District, 1975.
For curriculum materials to pro None of the foregoing ideas is new. Sigel, Irving. The Attainment of Con
mote concept development: Nor is reading and understanding cepts. Princeton. N.J.: Educational
them all that is needed to make con Testing Service Research Center, 1976.
1. Concepts should be clearly iden cept learning a consistent reality in Sigel, Irving. Logical Thinking in
tified as concepts (not facts, prin the classroom. To conceptualize these Children: Research Based on Piagel's
ciples, attitudes, and skills). ideas, the reader needs to encounter Theory. N ew York; Holt, Rinehart, &
2. Concepts should be clearly and deal with a number of examples Winston, 1968.
stated in terms of the set of charac and nonexamples of their use in the Taba, Hilda. Teacher's Handbook.
teristics by which examples are iden classroom. To develop skill in the Palo Alto. Calif.: Addison-Wesley Pub
tified and by which examples can be use of concept learning/teaching lishing Company, 1967.
distinguished from nonexamples. strategies requires not only concep Taba. Hilda. Teaching Strategies and
3. Several good examples and non- tualization, but firsthand experience Cognitive Functioning in Elementary
examples should be suggested or pro School Children. San Francisco: San
with their results w-ith students, wil
Francisco State College. 1966.
vided for use with students. lingness to take the required action to
Wallen. Durkin, and others. The
4. One or more appropriate con achieve the desired results, and Taba Curriculum Development Project
cept development learning sequences enough practice and application to in Social Studies. Final Report. Project
should be outlined for each concept. make the learning and teaching stra No. 5-1314. OE6-10-182. Washington,
These should state clearly what the tegies an integral part of both curri D.C.: HEW, Office of Education, Bu
learner needs to do at each step of culum and instruction. reau of Research, 1969.

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OCTOBER 1981 43
Copyright © 1981 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development. All rights reserved.