Concrete Learning

  • On 2010-01-28
  • 21st century learning, abstract, education, elementary school, inquiry, inquiry based learning, intuyu consulting, learning, pedagogy, students, symbolic, teaching, thinking, transfer of knowledge

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday whilst I was at Rowellyn Park Primary coaching Grade 5 and 6 teachers in developing inquiry based units.

Janette Lewellyn, the school principal, had invited Mike Scadden from Brain Stems ( to work with the teachers the following day and Mike happened to be in the room as I worked with the teachers. Mike is an ex-principal based in New Zealand and has a Masters Degree from the University of Tasmania specialising in brain compatible and accelerated learning.

At lunch time we were discussing brain training and developing brain compatible learning in primary school children. At one point he walked to the whiteboard I had been using and drew the following word diagram on the board …

Abstract – Symbolic – Concrete – Transfer

and then asked me in which domain did I see children working. I though for a moment and said .. “children really work in the concrete given they like to be very hands on and see things in front of them”. Mike then pointed out that one of the pitfalls that some schools fall in to is that they try to have the children learn from an abstract or symbolic representation before they are ready for it. So while a child may have a rote learn understanding of the abstract or symbolic representation it doesn’t transfer into their actual learning and ability to apply what they have learnt into different situations.

The small diagram that Mike drew represents a cognitive outline of how we can learn concepts such that they allow for a transfer of knowledge (i.e. able to apply it to other situations and circumstances). Children live very much in the now and their world is very much what they can see, feel, touch, etc. Thus, when I am coaching teachers, I coach them to develop projects that are real, practical and involve community. My intention is that the students start to relate their learning to the concrete world around them.

One thing to note about the diagram is that there aren’t arrows pointing in any direction. In fact the process is not linear. One can go back and forth using abstract, symbolic or concrete representations to cause the transfer of knowledge. I have found, particularly at high schools, that they tend to focus too much on the abstract and the symbolic and thus tend to lose the relationship of the student applying it to their world. Given my background as an engineer and a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering, I really became clear that just knowing and understanding the abstract concepts or the symbolic representations of the concept does not cause the true understanding of the physical situation and thus the transfer of knowledge.

I believe that one must use all aspects of abstract, symbolic and concrete in ones teaching but the percentage one uses it depends on the age group you are teaching. In primary schools you definitely would focus more on the concrete and introduce the symbolic and abstract more and more from Grade 2/3 onwards. Grade 5 / 6 would still be mostly concrete because that is the world of the children still. As the child grows in their cognitive undertsanding of the world around them then the greater the percentage of abstract and symbolic representations.

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kerry Westbury
This is the brick wall I have been butting up against all of my son's school life. Teachers who used too many words and then wonder why my son would go off and do his own thing .. he just could't comprehend it ... English subjects were too vague ... He thrived at the Steiner type education where they covered all 4 aspects ... they talked about how to build a moat and then went out and built moats around everything they could .. water and all ... :-) High school was a challenge where i constantly challenged my son and his teachers to practically apply the knowledge ... looking back high school was merely a means to an end and my son learnt more about relationships and how he fits into the world. Yesterday he started at the Gordon TAFE where he is doing VCAL Plumbing ... lots of hands on practical work for him... teachers who use a more concrete style of teaching ... he is going to be an awesome trades person and I can leave the brick walls alone!
It saddens me to see how little individuals comprehend how their brain functions. And you are certainly not one of those folks. This article just blows me away.

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