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How to Teach a Concept Attainment Model

I’m going to demonstrate an instructional strategy called Concept Attainment Model. This is a really cool technique for introducing a new idea, for helping students grasp a concept that is abstract, complicated, or difficult to pin down with a simple definition. In science, this could be something like the concept of mammal, or in math, linear equation. It could be a social studies topic like communism, or a grammar term like noun. In health, it might be the characteristics of a balanced meal. In corporate training, the characteristics of effective feedback. In a place like culinary school, this may be the qualities of a good stock, or in music, the characteristics of the Baroque style. In PE, maybe it’s the proper form of something like a golf swing. Here’s how it works: First, the teacher shows a series of examples.

We call these Yes and No examples. The Yes examples embody all of the qualities of the idea that you’re trying to show them. And the No examples might have some, but not all, of those qualities. As they watch these examples, students develop a common definition for all of the Yes examples — or they attempt to do this. Then the students test and refine their list by looking at more examples. So I’m going to demonstrate this by showing you a short lesson on figurative language, which is a concept we look at in language arts or English classes. Now before I start, I’ll say something like this to my students: At the beginning, start with the simplest, most obvious kinds of examples, so students can identify the basic characteristics. Here’s a Yes example of figurative language: “Joe is a beast when he’s hungry.” And here’s a No example: “Joe is cranky when he’s hungry.” It’s important that your No examples not be so obvious that they’re not taken seriously.

For example, if you’re running a workshop on appropriate dress in the workplace, you don’t want your No examples to be so outrageous that participants don’t really have to think to discern a difference. Here’s another Yes example: “This class is like a torture chamber.” And a No: “This class is boring.” At this point, students should already be starting to develop a theory about the concept you’re presenting. You might ask them to share their thoughts, or keep silent. Now that you have these first few examples, show a few more, gradually adding more that stray from the basic level. On the Yes side, I might add: “The flowers smiled up at the sun.” On the No side: “I had fun at the party.” In this case I’m starting to not do such an even parallel between the two because I’m starting to want to broaden their understanding of this concept. I’ll add: “My computer refuses to cooperate.” Now ask students to come up with a list of attributes that describe this concept. In this case, some students initially thought that my examples were all similes and metaphors.

They suggest these, so I put them down, because we’re sort of brainstorming right now. Then they looked more carefully at the last two Yes examples and realized a more broad description was needed to cover all the examples. So we cross those out, and change the definition to: “Comparing something human to something not human.” But then that idea was scrapped when they realized that “class” and “torture chamber” weren’t exactly human and non-human items. So an even more broad definition was written: “Comparing two unlike things to make a point.” So here they’re starting to get the idea that figurative language is where you are using some sort of device to make a point instead of just saying it plainly.

Concept Attainment Model

Now that students are satisfied with their definition, we test it by giving them more Yes examples. Hopefully some that might challenge the group’s definition further. So I would add on: “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Here they’re still sort of comparing raining to the idea of cats and dogs flying out of the sky to make a point, so this kind of fits the definition. But then I give them this one: “I’m dying of thirst.” Now we’re really starting to stretch. This is an example of hyperbole, so it’s an exaggeration. After seeing two more Yes examples, students revise their last definition, which was this, and they change it to this, “Saying something that isn’t literally true, but gets a feeling across.” In this definition, one student used the word “literally,” which happens to tie directly into the concept I’m trying to teach them… Figurative language is the opposite of literal language. At this point, I can spend a few minutes giving students the formal definition for figurative language and the terms for the examples I showed them.

Now if you’re a language arts person, you’re probably thinking that I have not included all types of figurative language. I’m not using sound devices in this one, like onomatopoeia or alliteration because I think they start to get pretty far away from the idea of “speaking figuratively,” and I’m trying to get my students understand the concept of speaking figuratively versus literally. So I would add those other types once they’ve got a good foundation in figurative language. Okay, so now I’ve completed my first three steps of Concept Attainment: Yes-No examples, Students develop a definition, and then they test and refine their definition by looking at more examples and seeing if they hold up. The final step is to have students apply their learning in a new task.

This could be something really simple like having them come up with new examples of figurative language. Or if they’re currently working on a piece of writing, I might ask them to go into their drafts now and find three places to add figurative language. That’s Concept Attainment. I learned the steps of this strategy from Silver, Strong, & Perini’s wonderful book, The Strategic Teacher. The Concept Attainment strategy is based largely on the work of Jerome Bruner in his book, Beyond the Information Given. If you have used Concept Attainment and have more information to add. Happy teaching, guys!.


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