Conceptual Learning And Development

Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin (1956) presented a theory of thinking that stimulated widespread interest in concept learning. The high interest continued into the 1980s but then lessened except as it related to science concepts. Pi-agetian theory on children's development of the concept of number (Piaget 1952) and of space (Piaget & Inhelder 1956), reported in books in English, generated worldwide interest in children's conceptual development. His theory remains a predominant theory of child development.

Klausmeier and his associates began programmatic research in 1960 directed toward testing the theories of both Bruner and Piaget. They found concept learning and concept development to be inseparably related. In turn, Klausmeier reported a rudimentary theory of conceptual learning and development in a 1971 journal article and a refined theory in 1992. The main propositions of the refined theory follow.

Concepts are the fundamental agents of intellectual activity, the basic component of a maturing individual's continuously enlarging cognitive structure. Aconcept consists of a person's organized information about an item or a class of items. Item as used here refers to an object (e.g. cutting tool), event (e.g., birthday), action (e.g., run), quality (e.g., thick), relationship (e.g., taxonomic), or abstract construct (e.g., eternity).

Concepts that have two or more instances are attained at four successively higher levels of understanding. Specific mental operations that emerge with neural maturation and learning and then become more powerful with further maturation and learning make possible the attainment of each successively higher level.

The four consecutive levels are concrete, identity, classi-ficatory, and formal. Attainment of the prior level is prerequisite for attaining the next level.

A concept has been attained at the concrete level when the learner recognizes an item (e.g., a clock on the wall) as the same one previously encountered in the identical spatial context or other context in which it was initially encountered. The mental operations involved in attaining a concept at the concrete level are selectively attending to an item, discriminating the item as an entity different from its surroundings, representing the item in long-term memory, attending to the item when it is again encountered in the identical context, retrieving the representation, and using it in recognizing the item as the same one encountered earlier.

Attaining a concept at the identity level involves recognizing an item as the same one previously encountered when it is observed from a different spatiotemporal perspective or when it is sensed in a different modality. The new mental operation that enables attaining the identity level is generalizing that the item, although experienced differently, is the same one cognized earlier.

Attaining the classificatory level requires recognizing at least two items (e.g., the clock on the wall and one on the desk) as being equivalent. Generalizing that at least two items are equivalent is the new operation that enables attaining the classificatory level. Concept attainment of the classificatory level continues until the learner can recognize any instance or noninstance of the concept.

Concept attainment of the formal level is inferred when the individual can identify any instance of the concept and any noninstance, give the name of the concept and the names of its defining attributes, state how any instance of the concept differs from any noninstance in terms of defining attributes, and give the experts' definition of the concept. Abstract thinking with words and other symbols facilitates learning the formal level.

Not all concepts can be learned at all four levels. Concepts for which there is only one instance (e.g., the Earth's moon) are learned only at the concrete and identity levels. Abstract concepts that have no observable instances (e.g., soul) are learned only at the formal level.

Focused instruction accelerates the learning of concepts. The learning aspect of conceptual learning and development theory is based on classroom experiments (Klausmeier, Ghatala, & Frayer, 1974; Klausmeier & Sipple, 1980). Major findings follow.

Repeated presentation of an item is necessary for attaining the concrete and identity levels of a concept. Experience with concept examples and nonexamples is essential for learning to classify correctly. The examples and nonex-amples are most effective when the examples differ from one another in their nondefining, or variable, attributes; range from easy to difficult; and are presented concurrently. Providing the learner (1) examples and nonexamples that have nearly the same defining attributes, (2) the name of the concept, (3) the names of its defining attributes, and (4) a definition of the concept facilitates attainment of the formal level.

Giving the learner the name of the concept facilitates at tainment of all four levels. Providing a definition reduces the number of examples and nonexamples required. Teaching students a strategy accelerates learning markedly, especially at the classificatory and formal levels.

The time required for attaining the four levels of concepts varies greatly. The time is longer for abstract concepts (e.g., noun) than for concrete concepts (e.g., cutting tool) and for slower cognitive developers than rapid developers.

Students vary greatly in the attainment of concepts. To illustrate, 20% of third-grade students had attained the formal level of noun while 21% of 12th-grade students had not.

As a concept is attained from the identity to the formal level it can be used more effectively to (1) recognize instances and noninstances of the concept, (2) understand principles of which the concept is a part, (3) understand relationships of the taxonomy of which the concept is a part, and (4) solve problems requiring understanding of the concept.

There are numerous theories of category learning, one being prototype theory, which was formulated by Rosch (1975, 1978). According to this theory, newly encountered objects are identified as members of a category by comparing them with a prototype that is the best or most typical instance of the concept that was learned earlier.

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