Concreteness fading

Supporting abstract understanding

Hey 👋

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.

“Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

— Henri Poincaré

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.


• Student understanding is best built one connection at a time, using what they already know.

• Concrete scaffolds (including analogies) can be useful tools in helping to build more abstract understanding.

• We must remove these scaffolds over time, to avoid limiting student generalisation.

Challenge → How intentionally do you build on (and with) student understanding in your classroom? Does it vary by subject or topic?

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(this week, we have links to studies on teacher presence, self-regulation, interleaving, and wearables for learning)


Peps 👊

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 ⤵️

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