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Seven Instructional Strategies Every Teacher Needs to Know, Part 4: Concreteness Fading
posted by: Alana | June 29, 2016, 05:26 PM   


Over the past several weeks, we’ve been doing a series on the seven instructional strategies that are recommended for every teacher to know and use no matter what they teach or how old their students are.   In the past, we’ve covered how to use graphics and words, distributing practice, and mixing solved and unsolved problems.  Most of these strategies have been cases where teachers may just need to make a small adjustment to a technique that they are already using, but this week’s strategy is different and will require changing how teachers think about their strategies entirely. 


Most teachers know well the strength of using concrete examples when teaching a subject.  With younger students especially, teachers know that physical manipulatives are often the key to getting students to understand a new concept.  With older students, many teachers try to tie a concept to a relevant and concrete example from their everyday life.  However, IES research suggests that relying solely on concrete examples may not be producing the results that teachers are trying to achieve.


Students who learn a concept using concrete examples or objects have better initial understanding, however they often fail to identify when that concept is being used in a different setting.  For example, if you teach students about the scarcity of natural resources using the example of the California drought, they may fail to recognize deforestation or the depletion of wetlands as being connected to the same concept.  The key to combatting this weakness is to make explicit connections between several concrete and abstract examples for the same concept, which can be done in a couple of different ways.


The first way is through a technique called concreteness fading.  In concreteness fading, the teacher starts with a very concrete example of a concept.  For example, a student learning about the number ten may start by counting ten buttons.  Then, the teacher slowly draws back by introducing examples that are less and less concrete until only the abstract concept remains.  In this example, the student might count ten buttons, then maybe ten marshmallows, then the student would count ten lines on a paper.  This would be followed by writing the number ’10’ and counting the lines at the same time, until only ‘10’ is needed and the student understands what ten is.


Another similar technique involves using various concrete examples and comparing them to an abstract concept.  For example, a teacher wanting to explain exponential growth might start out with a problem using money as an example and then have students graph the results of the problem, while discussing how money is an example of compound growth.  They then might use birth rate as an example, again having students graph while explaining the connection.


Both techniques have the same key elements.  They use examples of varying concreteness that allow students to think about problems on differing levels, they use several different examples to keep students from being caught up on idiosyncrasies that may exist, and they involve the instructor making explicit connections between the concrete and the abstract.


Have you had success introducing abstract concepts? Share below.

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