Supporting abstract understanding
Hope your November is unfolding nicely. Today, we’re continuing our theme of meaningful learning with a look at concreteness fading…
Big idea 🍉
Like building a physical structure, building understanding is not something that happens instantaneously.
We can't just implant a fully complete idea in the minds of our students. We must help them assemble it, one connection at time, using the tools (knowledge) they have at their disposal.
This is why student learning is limited by what they know, why we must start where they are at, and why it’s critical to break learning down into small steps.
When we get this right, students develop deeper understanding, better retention, stronger transfer, and higher levels of motivation. When we get it wrong, students end up confused, frustrated, and having to relearn ideas repeatedly during school.
The risk of disconnected learning is particularly high when we are trying to teach abstract concepts. A variety of researchers argue that we can mitigate this by providing students with a series of concrete ‘scaffolds’ to help gradually build abstract understanding. This is known as concreteness fading, and can look like:
In math(s): When dealing with fractions, starting with physical pizzas, before using drawings of pizzas, before representing with symbols.
In geography: Starting with a physical globe, before transitioning to maps, before tacking concepts like latitude or time zones.
Analogies are a kind of semantic tool for concreteness fading:
In biology: Discuss the features of a security checkpoint before explaining the concept of selective permeability in cell membranes.
One misconception around concreteness fading is that it’s about using real-life contexts—but teaching fractions through the lens of a basketball game is just as likely to increase distraction and cognitive load. Concrete scaffolds should be as lightweight as possible to perform their role.
Finally, concrete scaffolds (including analogies) are incomplete by definition, and so as soon as they have served their purpose, we should gradually dismantle them and help students to appreciate their limitations.
Note → Much of the evidence around concreteness fading is based on studies around early math(s) learning. It remains to be seen just how well this idea generalises to other subjects.
Challenge → How intentionally do you build on (and with) student understanding in your classroom? Does it vary by subject or topic?
Little links 🥕
On topic → For more on the current (mixed) state of evidence, check out this cracking (free) e-book on how people learn, this study on the effects of concreteness fading on transfer, and this analysis of the generalisability of the approach.
On trend → This week, we have a thoughtful audio analysis of a paper about ‘Research and Pedagogies for Early Math’, and a new study suggesting that rehearsal beats reflection when it comes to teacher development (with a Twitter summary from yours truly).
PRO bites 🥑
PS. My good friend Neil Almond has launched a zero-hype newsletter for teachers keen to keep up to speed with and develop their skills around AI and prompting… check it out ⤵️