Conceptual Teaching in Primary Social Studies: Teaching the Primary Three Reader,“Making the Little Red Dot Blue and Brown” in a Conceptual Way, pp. 2 of 10

The big ideas of a subject matter can take the form of concepts and generalisations. Unlike facts which are specific examples of people, places, situations or things (Erikson, 2002, 2007, 2008), concepts are cognitive constructs devised by people to help them manage and make sense of the massive quantity of information, people, places, things, events, etc in their environment. They do so by organising them into meaningful categories of examples that share the same essential or critical characteristics and setting them apart from the non-examples (Lee & Tan, 2001). Such categorisation is necessary and efficient for ease of human learning, retrieval and application (Martorella, 1998; Maxim, 1999). They function as “hooks” for people to hang their new information; and if the information does not seem to be a good fit for an existing conceptual hook, they can either expand their ideas of the hook or reconstruct a brand new one (Lee & Tan, 2001). The main elements of a concept consist of the concept label (name), the critical attributes and the examples which must contain these attributes (Joyce & Weil, 1986). For instance, cars, ships and aeroplanes are examples of the concept of transportation because of the critical attribute of moving people over distance; and all these examples are different from the non-examples of cupcakes, apple pies and waffles as the latter are examples of the concept of confectionery.

Generalisations are conceptual understandings which pupils can develop when they learn about concepts. They are statements about the relationships between two or more concepts to express a general rule or principle (Lee & Tan, 2001). Some examples of generalisations are:

  • A common identity and shared experiences and values can unite the citizens of a country together (the main concepts are identity, shared experiences, values and unity).
  • We change our environment to meet our needs (the main concepts are change, environment and needs).
  • Conflicts between nations can arise whenever national security is threatened   (the main concepts are conflicts, national security and threats).

Concepts and generalisations are abstract and complex in nature, and as such, they need to be “unpacked” for pupil learning. This means that instructional guidance during lessons has to be provided for pupils to understand them. Concepts and generalisations have generally universal applications in different places and cultures, and are generally timeless in nature. And generalisations in particular must be tested against and supported by facts (Erickson, 2002, 2007, 2008).  

Differences between Conceptual Teaching and Traditional Teaching

There are differences between conceptual teaching and traditional teaching according to Erickson (2002, 2007, 2008). In a traditional classroom where direct instruction is the norm, teaching is often topic-based and it is about covering the textbook content in a rigid, sequential manner. There is no proper focus as everything about the content is important and has to be covered. The end lesson goal for pupils is knowledge acquisition linked to a body of facts and information. Content is taught in silos without teachers making connections to the curriculum and pupils’ prior knowledge and experiences. Hence, pupil learning is piecemeal and there is limited transfer of learning. It is an intellectually less sophisticated model of teaching and learning.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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