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Carl Carrozza is about to begin a lesson on predator-prey relationships. He wants his students to develop a strong conceptual understanding of what a predator is and how predators are uniquely adapted to the life they lead.
Carl begins by telling students:
Today we're going to do something a little different. I'm going to hold up pictures of different animals. Some of these animals will be yes examples of an idea I have in mind. Some will be no animals. All the yes animals are examples of an important concept that's going to be at the center of what we study over the next few days. The no examples are not examples of this concept, though they may have some things in common with the yes examples. What I want you to do is to examine each yes example and each no example to try and figure out what the concept is. The name of the concept will be a start, but what I really want is for you to determine the critical attributes of the concept.
Carl then holds up pictures of the first three animals—cat (yes), dog (yes), rabbit (no)—and asks students to generate an initial set of attributes.
In surveying the class, Carl finds that some of the initial attributes students have come up with include common pets, runners (instead of hoppers), and meat eaters. He then presents pictures of four more animals: horse (no), lion (yes), brontosaurus (no), and velociraptor (yes).
"OK," Carl says, "so what do all the yes examples have in common? How are they different from the no examples?"
During the student discussion, students explore a number of ideas. One student notices that the brontosaurus is slow, but all the yes examples are fast. Another student explains how all the yes examples have sharp teeth and that they're all meat eaters. Carl collects the attributes students generate on the board. He then presents two more pictures—an eagle (yes) and a snake (yes).
With these examples, a student points out that the snake isn't fast, but another says, "Yeah, but it strikes fast." Other students focus on the fact that the eagle doesn't have teeth.
One student sums up, "They all have some kind of way to rip into meat. The eagle has the beak and claws; the snake has the teeth. All the other yes examples have claws and sharp teeth. But the no examples
don't have these kinds of things." At this point, most of the class is reasonably confident that the concept is carnivore and that the critical attributes are eats meat and has a way to tear into meat. Carl then holds
up one final picture of a vulture, which to many students' surprise is a no.
With this example, students realize that they have missed something: all the yes examples hunt and kill live animals, as opposed to the vulture, which eats dead animals. The class then reviews all the examples and
nonexamples and, with Carl, develops a final set of critical attributes for the concept of a predator:
After the class has worked out the critical attributes of predators, Carl presents them with pictures of various insects, birds, and fish and asks students to determine if each animal is a predator or not based on what they have learned. Later in the unit, as part of their final assessment for their portfolios, Carl will ask students to design their own predator, one that is ideally suited to an ecosystem of their choosing.
Why the Strategy Works
The Concept Attainment strategy is founded on the important work of Jerome Bruner (1973), who conducted extensive research into the psychological process known as concept formation. What Bruner concluded is that in order to cope with our diverse environment, humans naturally group information into categories based on common characteristics. For example, a child learns from experience that objects that have four wheels, travel on roads, and transport people belong to a category called cars. The conceptual soundness of the child’s emerging concept of a car is then tested by SUVs, minivans, trucks, and motorcycles—and refined.
Concept Attainment draws on this powerful process of concept formation by asking students to analyze both examples (called yes examples in a classroom lesson) and nonexamples (called no examples in a classroom lesson) of a concept, group the examples into a conceptual category, test their initial categories against further examples and nonexamples and, finally, generate a set of critical attributes that define the concept they are learning. The effectiveness of Concept Attainment as an instructional strategy is further bolstered by the fact that it engages students deeply in the skills of identifying similarities and differences and generating and testing hypotheses—two of the nine instructional techniques proven to raise students' level of achievement as identified by Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001).
In order to ensure that you get the most out of this tried-and-true strategy, we recommend that you base your Concept Attainment lessons on three simple principles: conceptual clarity, multiple examples, and conceptual competence.
The Principle of Conceptual Clarity. Learning a concept involves more than just learning a label; it involves learning the essential attributes of a concept. To learn the essential attributes of a concept, students must be able to discriminate between examples and nonexamples. Make sure all the essential attributes are clearly present in your examples and that nonexamples embody only some of these attributes. Avoid sending students down misleading and trivial paths.
The Principle of Multiple Examples. When presented with two examples, students can form initial hypotheses about a concept. However, when students see many and varied examples, they can define with increasing certainty the essential
attributes of the concept. It is a good idea to lead with more obvious examples and then to introduce more challenging examples as you and your students progress through the lesson.
The Principle of Conceptual Competence. A concept is learned when students can list the essential attributes of the concept and when they can use those attributes to discriminate between examples and nonexamples. Never be afraid to challenge students to apply their new understanding of the concept in a variety of ways. Can they design an imaginary predator? Can they create two imaginary societies—one that fits the concept of a civilization and another that is missing one key attribute? Can they think of 10 different examples of transportation from at least three different sources (e.g., from nature, on the road, at the amusement park)?
How to Use the Strategy
1. Select a concept with clear critical attributes (e.g., tragic hero, civilization, linear equations, alive, mammals, etc.) that you want students to understand deeply.
2. Provide students with yes examples, which contain all the critical attributes of the concept, and no examples, which contain some but not all of the critical attributes.
3. Ask students to identify what all the yes examples have in common and how the yes examples differ from the no examples. Students should generate an initial list of critical attributes of the concept.
4. Provide more yes and no examples that students can use to test and refine their initial list of attributes.
5. As a whole class, review the yes and no examples and generate a final set of critical attributes.
6. Ask students to apply their understanding of the concept by creating a product or completing a task.
Source: From The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson (Chapter 7: Concept Attainment), by Harvey F. Silver, Richard W. Strong and Matthew J. Perini. Copyright ASCD 2007. Adapted with permission.
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