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Concrete vs. Abstract

It is not a given that we must progress from Concrete understandings to abstract understandings in learning, but it is a good place to start. 
What are Concrete and Abstract Ideas?

Concrete concepts:  These are concepts that are more physical and tangible. 

Abstract concepts:  These are concepts that exist more in thought.  

But in actuality, concrete vs abstract varies at different levels and for different experiences.  These concepts are dependent on prior knowledge and specificity of the task or situation. 


Example:  House seems like a concrete term at first, but when we stop to think about it, it can become more abstract. 

  • There are many different kinds of houses, what they look like how we can describe them, can make a difference. 

  • Does a house  = a home? 

  • Do the materials that make up a house matter? 

  • Can an apartment be a house? 

  • At what point does a house become a mansion or a hut? 

Why Is This Important

When teaching or learning a new concept it is important to start with multiple specific concrete ideas/examples. The more tangible and interactive (interactive means involving the senses: movement, touch, taste, smell, sound, visual) these examples are the better. 

Ex. If an example of a house is used to explain something, and a student has only ever lived in an apartment.  

For learners:

  • This helps them to understand exactly what connections are trying to be made. 

  • It highlights areas of confusion or lack of knowledge a student might have.  

  • It helps them be more specific about which questions to ask to further their knowledge. 

For educators:

  • It allows them to try to make specific and explicit connections to the concepts that are important. 

  • It can also highlight any areas where students might not have the appropriate background knowledge.  This allows the teacher valuable information that will help them adjust their teaching to meet the learners needs.  

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Concreteness Fading
2.2 Spacing.gif

Concrete examples also have another important element to them that is useful to know.   This is called Concreteness Fading. 

Concreteness fading is a process by which initial learning with a concrete representation occurs, and then over time, key components of the concrete representation are replaced by more idealized and abstract representations. 

2.2 Spacing.gif

We saw this effect when we talked about the benefits of spacing and spaced retrieval.  

Theory to Practice:
A teaching connection

Teaching Rotation vs. Revolution
 Concrete Examples might be:
  • Act out examples of rotation vs. revolution
  • Watch videos of the difference between rotation vs. revolution
  • Look at a diagram of rotation vs. revolution.
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More Abstract Examples might be:
  • Worksheet describing the definition of rotation vs. revolution.
  • Paper and pencil activities on rotation and revolution. 
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In the beginning, multiple concrete examples should be used to help make the initial direct and explicit connections to the ideas and concepts that are supposed to be learned or that are important for a specific learning objective.  
Later, more abstract activities can be used that help students make deeper and broader connections which in turn creates more opportunities for further transfer of knowledge.  
If you want to learn more about Concrete Examples: 

References I used for this page: 

Fyfe, E. R., McNeil, N. M., & Borjas, S. (2015). Benefits of “concreteness fading” for children's mathematics understanding. Learning and Instruction, 35, 104–120.

Tyler Davis, Micah Goldwater, Josue Giron, From Concrete Examples to Abstract Relations: The Rostrolateral Prefrontal Cortex Integrates Novel Examples into Relational Categories, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 27, Issue 4, April 2017, Pages 2652–2670,

Kamina, Penina and Iyer, Nithya N., "From Concrete to Abstract: Teaching for Transfer of Learning when Using Manipulatives" (2009). NERA Conference Proceedings 2009. 6.

Sadoski, M., Goetz, E. T., & Fritz, J. B. (1993). Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest, and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(2), 291–304.

Fyfe, E. R., McNeil, N. M., & Borjas, S. (2015). Benefits of “concreteness fading” for children's mathematics understanding. Learning and Instruction, 35, 104–120.

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