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Figure 2

Approaches to building conceptual understandings

1. List, sort, and label and define concepts

  • List, sort and label concepts looking for simple relationships between concepts; sorting and grouping into similar/dissimilar
  • Examining the key attributes of the concepts and using prior student knowledge and experiences

Build concept hierarchies - Students can classify 'bundles' of concepts to show understanding about where concepts fall in a hierarchy. The aim is to show understanding of the higher-order concepts under which others fall.

Use analogies and prior knowledge to make abstract concepts more concrete. For example, most students are familiar with the use of a scale to balance weights. Using a scale as an analogy for justice – the balancing of arguments – provides a way to help students understand that justice is about balancing arguments. Research suggests that students need 3-5 different occasions to engage with a concept (no more than two days apart) before a new idea is assimilated.

Teaching strategies:

Card sort, CD maps, concept shapes, spider web maps, free word associations, concept walls, concept charades.

2. Identify further examples and non-examples

Construct links between like-concepts. For example, ask students to show relationships between concepts in a context of learning (such as rules – laws, government – democracy). Non-relationships can also be explored (such as anarchy – rules –laws). In doing so, try to keep the following guidelines in mind.

  • Select examples that are clearly different from each other, for example, you could compare different settings such as rural-urban; western nation - developing nation; minority group - majority group.
  • Provide opportunities for the students to compare examples and non-examples of people being treated impartially and in accordance with the law in order to construct a concept of "equality under the law".

Teaching strategies:

Structured overviews, chalk and cheese, concept maps.

3. Demonstrate connections between multiple concepts

Explore the relationships between concepts and how they are linked. Select 'bundles of concepts' around a conceptual understanding and encourage students to explore their understanding of connections between these concepts.

Teaching strategies:

Concept maps, structured overview, card sort, concept arrows.

4. Transfer conceptual understanding to previously unseen/unknown examples

Apply the concept to new/unrelated contexts – teachers provide feedback and monitoring; level of abstraction increases.

Start with a prototype (typical example) of the concept and move towards examples that are less typical. For example, if the concept were “democracy” you could move from what, for most students, is the familiar example of New Zealand’s own government to a less familiar example, such as the United States, and on to a non-example, such as Saudi Arabia.

Teaching strategies:

Chalk and cheese, structured overview, concept charades from different settings

5. Taking action/making decisions based on new knowledge and understandings

Use their knowledge of the concept in a meaningful context to generate solutions to problems; make decisions.

Examining analytical concepts such as decision-making or participation provides students with opportunities to decide what action or decision they themselves can take. Encouraging responsibility within the class may lead to social action.

Teaching strategies:

Concept debate

6. Identify a range of ways in which the concept may be interpreted

Using social studies perspectives, select contexts where there are conflicting values and understandings of a theme or issue. Current events are a good starting point. Encourage learners to identify key concepts over which there are differences of opinion and interpretation.

Teaching strategies:

Concept maps, CD maps, concept shapes, concept debate

Source: Derived and adapted from ideas by Gilbert and Vicks (2004)

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