Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Comeback of Concepts

Recent research suggests that concepts are making a rightful comeback in classrooms. According to a Vanderbilt University study, students who learn the concepts underlying mathematical procedures develop better problem-solving skills and increased flexibility in thinking. Students with conceptual understanding can approach a problem in multiple ways to achieve successful outcomes.

These “new” research findings are not news to educators who understand how the brain learns. The brain seeks and sees patterns. Patterns, or concepts, aid both memory storage and retrieval. Patterns empower authentic learning.

Patterns enable the brain to construct understanding. As it encounters new experience, the brain begins to label and sort data. Through this organizing, patterns emerge and trigger recall of relevant past experiences. The past experiences provide a reference point and working memory systems blend the new data and the reference point to construct new understanding.

Patterns enable the transfer of learning. Pattern recognition prompts recall of understood concepts or relevant skills that enable a response to current circumstances. As we encounter real-world scenarios, our brains seek out patterns. Once recognized, those patterns aid our recall of related processes (e.g., mathematical procedures) that may be used in problem-solving. This flexibility in thinking required for transferring learning develops as students understand underlying patterns and how to recognize them within varied scenarios.

Patterns empower critical thinking. Just as a skill (mathematical or otherwise) can be applied when a student recognizes patterns within a scenario, so thinking can be engaged when conceptual patterns are recognized. Consider learning about a major historical event, such as World War II, but instead of just memorizing names and dates, you explored underlying patterns: World War II as an illustration of the results of combining power and prejudice. Now you have a pattern, a reference, something you can recall when you hear about “ethnic cleansing” in the news. What’s come together to allow such atrocities? What happens if these atrocities are not stopped? Your pattern-based understanding of World War II suddenly gives history of the last century importance; it provides a reference point for thinking about, and possibly addressing, current circumstances.

So, let’s cheer this renewed emphasis on concepts—not at the expense of basic knowledge, but as the organizing principles that give basic knowledge its value. However, more than this, let’s learn what we can about the brain and apply what we learn to our teaching. That way we become intentional practitioners—teachers who know why they do what they do and why what they do works.

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