Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions, pp. 4 of 9

Thus concepts provide the foundation for learning.  How can we expect learners to understand their roles in the community if they do not really understand the concept of community?  Students will have trouble making sense of maps if they do not understand the concept of scale.  It is difficult to make sense of Singapore’s early modern history if you do not have a grasp of the concept of colony.  Concepts serve as building blocks for learning and they are the building blocks of the curriculum.  Concepts differ from facts in that concepts are abstract ideas, while facts are items of information or data that are easily verifiable.  Facts may change but concepts do not; that is, they apply across time and space.  Take the statement, for example, Singapore became a British colony in 1819. This is a statement of a fact. It is an item of information that can be verified. The concept of colony, however, is an abstract construct that contains within it, many other ideas.

A concept thus refers to an entire group of objects, people, events or ideas. Children may, for example, know the community they live in, but that is not the same as understanding the concept of a community.  Once they begin to understand that there are many communities, in Singapore and throughout the world, and that communities existed in the past, then they are beginning to understand community as a concept and not just their personal experience.

Now, it is your turn to identify the main primary social studies concepts in the syllabus (see Figure 1).

But concepts are more than just labels.  I may understand that I live in a community and other people do as well.  But just what is a community?  In conceptual teaching, the challenge is to help learners learn about the defining or critical attributes of particular concepts.  This term refers to the key characteristics of a particular concept that you want your learners to understand. Each concept has key attributes or characteristics that enable us to sort and group similar items into the concept. Thinking in terms of critical attributes rather than simply definitions will help you to focus on important characteristics of a particular concept rather than simply giving your learners a definition to memorize.  It is important to think about what you want your learners to understand about the concept.  After all, whole books have been written about the concept of community.  But what should primary learners understand about “community”?  Similarly, sociologists have made extensive studies of communities.  But what are the key points that matter for your primary school children? Let us pause to identify the defining attributes of the concepts in the primary social studies syllabus (see Figure 2).

Conceptual teaching, then, is a powerful tool to enable your students to develop deep understanding at a developmentally appropriate level.  It enables learners to rise above bits of information and see patterns and connections.  It enables learners to develop the schemata through which they can integrate and connect new and existing information. Facts become, not ends in themselves, but supporting materials for the development of understanding.  Facts become, not bits of information to be remembered, but the building blocks for concepts.  It is this understanding that allows them to explain and apply what they are learning.  When your students are able to transfer knowledge to new situations and times, they are demonstrating deep understanding.

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!