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How to Use the Concept Attainment Strategy

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Give me 5 minutes and you’ll have a new teaching strategy under your belt.

Suppose you’re an art teacher. This week, you want to introduce your students to Impressionism, the style of painting used by artists like Monet and Renoir. Now, you could just give them the name of the style and a definition, then show some examples.

OR!!!

Using a strategy called Concept Attainment, you could reverse that order. Instead of providing any terminology or any kind of definition, you could simply tell students that you’re going to study a new style. To learn the style, you’ll show them paintings that use that style, and paintings that don’t — Yes and No examples. Their job will be to come up with a list of characteristics that they think define the style.

You begin with this first Yes example:

monet

 

Then a No example:

Gerard The Piano Lesson 1810

 

Followed by this one, another Yes example:

degas

 

Then another No:

David-Oath_of_the_Horatii-1784

 

As they study the examples, students work to develop a definition, or a list of characteristics common to all the Yes examples. Once they’ve done this, you give them more Yes examples to test and refine their list. Ultimately, students arrive at a thoughtfully crafted definition of Impressionism — one that will stick with them much longer than if you’d just given it to them to begin with.

For a more thorough example of how Concept Attainment works, I offer you this video demonstration:

 

 

The Research Behind the Strategy


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I first learned this strategy in Silver, Strong, and Perini’s 2007 book, The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson. In their chapter on Concept Attainment, the authors explain that the reason this strategy results in deep understanding is because it works with the way human beings instinctively learn. As we experience the world, we naturally organize things into categories based on common attributes. Concept Attainment is structured in the same way.

In their 2001 book, Classroom Instruction That Works, Marzano, Pickering and Pollock identified nine classroom practices that produced the most significant gains in student learning. This strategy uses two from that list: identifying similarities and differences (which was at the top of the list), and generating and testing hypotheses.

I like this strategy because it really involves students in their own learning. Instead of just delivering the information to them, you’re helping them discover it on their own. Also, it’s captivating — a mystery to solve! — which is far more likely to engage students than straightforward delivery of information. Finally, it’s a pretty easy switch to make from what you’re already doing: definition-then-examples becomes examples-then-definition, then maybe a little lecture just to tighten things up.

Share Your Experience

Concept Attainment could be used in just about any subject area and at any grade level. I could see it in corporate training, in coaching, even when teaching a preschooler how to wash his hands (“We’re going to come up with some rules for hand washing. Watch these five kids wash their hands. These three are doing it correctly, these two are not. What do you think the rules are?”)

If you have used the strategy and have more information, variations, tips on doing it well, or even a correction to how I’m presenting it here, please tell us about it in the comments section below.

Hope this adds something new and different to your repertoire! ♦

 

Like what you’ve seen so far?
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18 Comments

  1. Abbe says:

    Hey! I didn’t know there was a name for that strategy. Excellent!

    • g3moStone says:

      Samesies! It’s basically the strategy I’ve been perfecting (not that any strategy can ever be truly perfected) over the eight years I have been teaching technology subjects. Exciting stuff!

  2. Ralph says:

    That is really a great idea! I can see how it could apply to any type of learning and will definitely share with my colleagues. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks! What industry do you work in?

      • Ralph says:

        I work in learning and development for a medical device company. You have NO idea how much training and on-going education is required and, quite frankly, nobody has a degree in education around here so all our efforts are either hit or miss. Trying to educate myself so we have more hits than misses! Keep up the great work. Very inspiring!

  3. Does this work in adult learning as well? Say I show employees an example of a well-written permit, versus a poorly-written permit, one with not much information. Do you think this would result in them learning to write good permits?

    • I think it would work beautifully with adult learners. What’s nice about this strategy is that there’s nothing childish about it. And yes on the permit writing. With any kind of writing, this would work really well. Show a few examples that are done well and a few that have some good qualities but not enough, and have participants come up with a list of qualities that describe all the good ones. It’s funny, because writing teachers so often give students rubrics before a writing assignment to describe all the characteristics of a well-written piece. Now I’m thinking students should study models of pieces that are written well and try to figure out what constitutes a good paper. Anyway, yes on the permits. (Also, because I know that you work in the safety industry, I will also add that using examples and non-examples to teach different safety principles would also be a great way to get stuff across!)

  4. I use Concept Attainment when teaching Social Emotional Learning to my students (although I didn’t know the strategy had a name). The students are 100% engaged and take ownership of the new SEL strategies because (they think) it’s their idea and their rules. BTW, love your stuff. Keep it coming!

  5. I’ll try this as soon as I get back to class after Thanksgiving Break; it’s not a new strategy for me, but it’s one I tossed to the side in more recent years. I’ve found this strategy to work really well with English Language Learners.
    Thanks for the reminder!

    • joanna says:

      I am ELL teacher and this is awesome for ells. I love getting away from teacher telling students listening. Thanks!

  6. This is exactly the same idea as “supervised learning” in machine learning and artificial intelligence. In that setting, you feed examples and non-examples to an algorithm to train it on what is a “yes” or a “no” example, so that it can make these determinations itself in the future.

  7. Janet Dunkin says:

    Thanks for that clear example in your videos! This is one of the strategies I’ve showed student teachers but the video makes it much clearer. This strategy also appears in the book Beyond Monet by Barrie Bennett and Carol Rolheiser….which is basically a compendium of excellent teaching strategies.

  8. Lindsey says:

    Thanks! I’m excited to try this. I was trained NEVER to use false examples (a “NO” in this context) because they supposedly lead to students internalizing incorrect information. This was in the context of foreign language teaching. I always felt that there was a place for them though–thanks for giving me the idea to revisit.

  9. Katie says:

    I love this. I visited your site searching for help because I’m having to write a lesson plan using concept attainment for grad class, and I was totally lost. You explain it beautifully, and I definitely plan on implementing it in my own classroom, not just for this assignment! 😉 Thanks so much! Great video!

  10. mostafa says:

    how do I use (concept attainment strategy ) for creativ in design? I’m a industerial designer.l need a metod for discover when the complex problem is there.

    • Hi Mostafa,

      Can you give me an example of the kind of concept you’d be trying to teach? I think concept attainment would be perfect for teaching design. Regardless of the concept, you show “yes” examples of the concept, then “no” examples, until students begin to be able to define the concept for themselves. For something like design, which can sometimes be hard to pin down, this method would result in much deeper understanding and transferability of the concepts.

  11. Thanks for the reminder. I can see this being very helpful teaching the distinction between monomers and polymers that my students are working through right now in Food Science.

  12. This is one of my favorite instructional models. I first used it after reading Models of Teaching by Joyce and Weil.

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