Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

Posts in this series…
1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling

Concreteness fading is exactly what the name suggests. You start with a concrete example, and once your students have grasped it, you fade it out for a more abstract representation. The purpose behind this strategy is that abstract representations are more generalizable than concrete ones.

When teaching a concept you should use an example with strategically extraneous details. It sounds strange, but it’s true. Concrete examples help students with initial learning because they have extraneous details (Glenberg et al., 2004). These details help “ground” the concept in the familiar, allowing students to grasp the example. 

However, the extraneous details making up a concrete example hinder generalization and transfer (Petersen & McNeil, 2013). Hence the need to fade from concrete representations to abstract ones.

Useful Definitions

We do run into a bit of an academic language problem when talking about concreteness fading. Technically, abstract representations do not exist because, whenever you describe something, or write, or draw it, parts of that idea become concrete.

In their 2018 paper, Fyfe and Nathan propose a simple linguistic work around. Instead of referring to examples as concrete (specific and non transferrable) or abstract (general and transferrable) we instead identify them as less idealized (concrete) or more idealized (abstract). 

Concrete Examples (Less Idealized)

Not all concrete examples are created equal. Concrete examples that are less idealized add seductive details that make it more difficult than necessary in order to learn and generalize the example (Sundararajan & Adesope, 2020). So when we are crafting our concrete examples, we should be careful with the type of extraneous information we include, that extra information might not help initial learning.

We ought to include the extraneous information that improves initial learning (It isn’t really extraneous then, is it?). There are two types of information to be wary of: perceptual and conceptual.

Perceptual information pertains to the physical properties of the example. This could include 2D or 3D representations, visual surface features such as patterns and how real an object looks. Researchers have found that 3-Dimensional representations are generally more effective than 2-Dimensional objects, at least in math (Carbonneau, Marley, & Selig, 2013). In addition, representations that are particularly rich in visual surface features have been found to inhibit learning compared with less perceptually rich objects (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2013).

The solution to this isn’t to only use 3-D or less perceptually rich representations. It is simply to be smart about it. 

What are you teaching? What is the main idea of the concept? Does the picture/diagram allow students to make incorrect inferences? How much explanation will students need to understand your concrete example? Is the “extraneous” information in this representation directly relevant to the concept?

Conceptual information is trickier, because it is learner dependent. Conceptual information depends on the background knowledge your students bring to the table. If your students are very familiar with an object, it is often difficult for them to think about that object abstractly (Petersen & McNeil, 2013).

Abstract Examples (More Idealized)

A good abstract, or idealized representation allows students to make the intended generalization with the least effort. Essentially, in a more idealized representation, your students will be more likely to successfully transfer their learning to a new context. We should also expect for students who are more novice to struggle with transferring their learning, even if they are able to think about the underlying ideas of the representation (Koedinger & Nathan, 2004).

The purpose of an idealized representation is to encourage generalization and transfer. Idealized representations achieve this by moving the focus from the what representation is to what the representation does. Idealized representations are able to do this because they lack the extraneous details of less idealized representations.

old lady or hag

The extraneous details of a less idealized representation help to ground the example in the familiar and the relatable, thus, providing a fertile context for initial learning (Glenberg et al., 2004; Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). And it is this same grounding that reduces transfer of learning. Think about an optical illusion. If you see the young lady first, it can be hard to then see the old hag, and vice versa. When we use more abstract, more idealized representations, we make it easier for students to generalize and transfer their learning.

Three Concrete Goals

According to Fyfe and Nathan (2002) three goals of concreteness fading are to

  1. Promote initial learning with a meaningful, less idealized representation of the concept. (grounded context)
  2. Promote transfer of learning by ending a learning sequence with a generic, broadly applicable idealized representation.
  3. Draw connections between less idealized (concrete) and more idealized (abstract) representations to create a well developed schema.

Concreteness Fading (Less to More Ideal)

Concreteness fading aims to take advantage of both concrete and abstract representations. The extraneous details of a less idealized example help the student to learn the concept, but these same details prevent students from transferring that concept, it is inert, inflexible knowledge (Schliemann & Carraher, 2002). However, if after initial learning you begin to use more idealized examples by reducing the extraneous details, your students will be more able to generalize and transfer the concept, making their knowledge applicable and flexible (Kaminski, Sloutsky, & Heckler, 2008).

As we fade from the less ideal to the more ideal, we don’t simply want to focus on the idealized examples. Concreteness fading is not a checklist procedure to follow, the initial concrete examples are still true, they are still valuable. 

The concrete examples help provide a continued grounding for the abstract ones, so we should ensure our students know not only the concrete and abstract representations of the concept, but we should also ensure they understand the connections between concrete and abstract representations by making the connections explicit. 

Fyfe and Natan encourage teachers to use a 3-step progression starting with a grounded, less idealized representation before fading into an abstract, idealized one. In order to do this successfully, teachers must reduce the perceptual and conceptual information their examples contain. 

The classic example of this 3-step model is in math. You start with a 3-D manipulative and go to an image on the paper and you finally conclude with just numbers. concreteness fading

This 3-step strategy can be applied in many other classes and age groups as well. In science, you could start teaching about a food chain by showing a video of a gazelle grazing in the savanna being silently stalked by a cheetah. Next, you could show the classic image of a food chain and then, finally, have your students generalize the pattern of food chains to any environment (producers to primary consumers to secondary consumers, etc).
1. Springbok Antelopes vs Cheetahs (Antelopes are a type of gazelle)
2. gazelle food chain
3. Producer –> Primary Consumer –> Secondary Consumer

*Note: You should use the correct vocabulary throughout your examples, whether they are concrete or abstract. Ex: The bush is a producer, the gazelle is a primary consumer, the cheetah is a secondary consumer.

This will give your students more exposure to the vocabulary in context, which will also make transferring their knowledge easier.

Concreteness Fading, Research, and Teachers

Concreteness fading is not an end all be all for education, it alone is not a silver bullet. But, if we want all of our students to know our subjects deeply, it is vitally important. The methods proposed by Fyfe and Nathan will also give our students exposure to multiple models of a concept, this likely increases the flexibility of their learning (Jacobson et al., 2020).

By teaching with methods aligning to research, we make the curriculum more accessible for all students. When we deviate from research and go with mere instinct, we increase the likelihood of creating an inequitable learning environment. Research alone is not some paneca of perfection, but without it, what are you going on beyond experience?

We should understand the broad principles of research and apply them to our context with nuance.

Sources

  • Carbonneau, Kira, Scott Marley, and James Selig. 2013. “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Teaching Mathematics with Concrete Manipulatives.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105 (2): 380–400. doi:10.1037/a0031084.
  • Fyfe, E. R., & Nathan, M. J. (2018). Making “concreteness fading” more concrete as a theory of instruction for promoting transfer. Educational Review, 71(4), 403–422. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2018.1424116
  • Glenberg, Arthur, Tiana Gutierrez, Joel Levin, Sandra Japuntich, and Michael Kaschak. 2004. “Activity and Imagined Activity Can Enhance Young Children’s Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Psychology 96 (3): 424–436. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.96.3.424.
  • Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, C. (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222
  • Kaminski, Jennifer, Vladimir Sloutsky, and Andrew Heckler. 2013. “The Cost of Concreteness: The Effect of Nonessential Information on Analogical Transfer.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 19:14–29. doi:10.1037/a0031931.
  • Koedinger, Kenneth, and Mitchell Nathan. 2004. “The Real Story behind Story Problems: Effects of Representations on Quantitative Reasoning.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 13 (2): 129–164.
  • Petersen, Lori, and Nicole McNeil. 2013. “Effects of Perceptually Rich Manipulatives on Preschoolers’ Counting Performance: Established Knowledge Counts.” Child Development 84: 1020–1033. doi:10.1111/cdev.12028.
  • Schliemann, Analucia, and David Carraher. 2002. “The Evolution of Mathematical Reasoning: Everyday versus Idealized Understandings.” Developmental Review 22 (2): 242–266.
  • Sundararajan, N., Adesope, O. Keep it Coherent: A Meta-Analysis of the Seductive Details Effect. Educ Psychol Rev (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09522-4

Concrete Examples

 

The basic idea of concrete examples is simple enough. You take a new concept that is complex for a student and you relate it to something that is simple for that student. For example, if you are teaching about soil conservation you would need to communicate a variety of complex vocabulary to students such as humus, topsoil, erosion, contour plowing, etc. In order for all of these abstract concepts and terms to make sense, it helps for students to relate them to what they already know.

You can compare the humus and topsoil to plant food because students understand the concept of food already. As you do this, it is important to then relate how the plants ‘eat’ their food. As you do this you can talk about how the plant roots help to hold the soil in place, like how a paper clip helps to hold papers together. From here, you can talk about how contour plowing slows erosion by plowing with the curves of the land. You can then go back to your paper clip example and put more paper clips along the edges of the paper. Your students will see that instead of being close in only one part, the paper will be close everywhere because there are many paper clips spread out along the papers’ edges all working together to hold it tight.

Paper clips holding paper together is the concrete example, while contour plowing helping reduce erosion is the abstract example. By explicitly linking the concrete example to the abstract one, you can help your students know and understand complex concepts.

However, this is not enough. It is also important to practice concreteness fading in your classroom. Concreteness fading is exactly what it sounds like. You begin to use more abstract examples over time.

For our above example, the concrete example is how a paper clip can hold a packet of paper together and a group of paper clips can hold a packet of paper together more effectively, similar to how contour plowing helps hold the soil in place. In order to start the concrete fading the teacher can use the same or a similar example, but this time there is no physical example, just a drawing. Then, after that, the teacher can simply refer to how contour plowing can reduce erosion.

This is, of course, a vast simplification of the process. But the pattern is essentially true. It is helpful to start with a concrete example that is already understood by your students. Then make it slightly more abstract. And move towards only having the abstract concept, because the abstract concept is often the goal of the lesson.

 

Sources

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/8/25-1

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2018/2/1-1

6 Learning Strategies

Learning strategies are a new thing for me, but they shouldn’t be. I majored in elementary education, but found that I didn’t learn all that much about how students learn.

I stumbled upon learning strategies when I was doing a research assignment for grad school by finding the Learning Scientists blog. The blog essentially breaks down which strategies are the most effective along with why.

The most effective strategies are Spaced Practice, Retrieval Practice, Elaboration, Interleaving, Concrete Examples, and Dual Coding.

Spaced Practice

In brief, spaced practice says that repeated practice for relatively brief periods of time is more effective than cramming. Spaced practice should be practiced in conjunction with other learning strategies.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is just like it sounds. Students should try and retrieve all the information they can using only their brain. An effective way for students to use this strategy is by having them write down all the information they can about the topic. Encourage students to go deeper than definitions, how are the terms and concepts related? After students finished this, they should use their textbook/notes to check for missing information and the accuracy of what they have written.

Elaboration

To utilize the elaboration learning strategy you should encourage your students to ask themselves how and why questions as they are reading or studying. After students have posed the how or why question, they should search for the answer in the material and discuss it with classmates. When doing this, students should intentionally work to make connections between different concepts that are related. Then students should analyze the ways those concepts are different. It is important that students are accurately explaining the concepts. So, train them to check their explanations with their notes or textbooks.

Interleaving

Think of interleaving like making a rope. A rope takes several pieces of thread and winds them together, making the whole stronger. In interleaving, students should take several topics and study them one at a time. As they go from topic to topic, students should work to make connections between the different topics. After students have gone through each topic, they should then go over the same topics but in a different order. For example, if the subject is Biology and students are studying natural selection, the topics may include environment, traits, and reproduction. The students could study the following topics as follows:

  1. Environment, traits, reproduction
  2. Traits, reproduction, environment
  3. Reproduction, traits, environment

By studying the topics again in a different order, students will be strengthening their connections within and between the topics.

Concrete Examples

The purpose of concrete examples is to make vague or new concepts more easily understood by students. For example, if you are teaching elementary science and the topic is ‘adaptations’ students may not immediately understand the term. You can help them by giving a concrete example: “An adaptation a bird has is its wings. The wings help a bird to fly.”

After students understand the concrete example, help them to apply the concept by guiding them into making their own concrete examples.

Dual Coding

Dual Coding is a combination of written and visual examples. A common example of dual coding is seen in diagrams. Diagrams are essentially a labeled picture. When students use the dual coding strategy, they should look at the visual component and explain what it means in their own words. Another way to apply dual coding is for students to draw a picture/diagram of the concept they are learning. Then they can label/explain it.

As all these strategies are essentially new to me, I am still thinking about how to incorporate them into my teaching. I plan to explore each strategy in depth in future posts.