Diversity: Approaches to building conceptual understanding in the Social Studies classroom, pp. 3 of 14

Conceptual Understanding & Diversity

Before we explore some approaches to building conceptual understanding, it would be useful to delineate the concept of ‘conceptual understanding’. Concepts can be perceived as abstractions of the ideas and characteristics of the phenomena we wish to describe. They “group certain facts together and help organize them and make sense of them by revealing patterns of similarity of difference” (Barr, Graham, Keown & McGee, 1997). Conceptual understanding, on the other hand, may refer to what is being understood by the use of a concept in a specific context. For example the abstract concept of ‘diversity’ can be understood in terms of its more concrete attributes such as differences in age, gender, race or religion. Given that concepts tend to exist in the abstract, it is important for students to build conceptual understanding in order to grasp the complexity of the phenomenon that is being looked at.

Concepts help students to organise new information by categorising groups of facts according to patterns of similarity and difference. From these patterns, students form their framework or schema for each concept. This process is a method of enabling students to develop their own way of viewing the world.

Ministry of Education, New Zealand, 2009

Therefore, to inculcate students with the ability to make sense of the complex world, it is important to foster their competency in conceptualising phenomena using appropriate conceptual frameworks. As opposed to traditional methods of rote learning, students empowered with strong conceptual understanding may perceive concepts more holistically and apply that knowledge more broadly across other related subjects of inquiry. Moreover, students will be able to learn, understand and retain their knowledge of the concepts they are taught.

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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