A Hidden Strength of “Concreteness Fading”

In my last post, I wrote about a teaching strategy called “concreteness fading.”

If we start with concrete examples, and gradually transition to abstract formulas, we help our students understand and transfer math knowledge.

I think this technique includes an under-appreciated strength: its name clearly describes what the method advocates.

Here’s my point:

The Problem with Catchy Brands

If I, as a researcher or teacher, come up with a cool new teaching idea, I want people to adopt it. Obviously.

And so I’m tempted to come up with an upbeat, catchy name for it. For the sake of example, let’s say I devise a method of “awesome teaching.”

This brand name has the advantage of zany enthusiasm.

But, it distracts from a conversation about the merits of the method. Now, anyone who articulates doubts about my method seems to argue against being awesome. Which is to say: they seem like a bad person.

This problem came home to me recently when I talked at a (great) school about working memory and its limitations. A teacher, reasonably enough, noted that my argument contradicted some segments of an instructional methodology championed in her district.

Here’s the catch: that method’s name included the word “authentic” in it.

As a result, I found myself–bizarrely–arguing against “authenticity.”

Of course, I’m NOT opposed to being authentic. I am, however, opposed to using teaching methods that overwhelm working memory capacity–even if those methods are branded “authentic.”

So, in that case, the word “authentic” simply made it harder to have a sensible, research-based conversation about the teaching methods involved. I felt I had to repeat, over and over, “I’m not against being authentic, I’m against this particular thing that calls itself ‘authentic.’ ”

To be clear: “authentic” isn’t the only problem phrase–not by a long shot.

For instance, there’s a splendid strategy for giving feedback: one that I regularly encourage.

Alas, it calls itself “wise feedback.” Now, anyone who doubts the method seem to oppose being wise while giving feedback. That’s an unhelpful burden for those of us who want to rely on research.

Back to “Concreteness Fading”

At this point you’ll understand why I like the phrase “concreteness fading.”

Unlike other branding phrases (“student-centered,” anyone?), it’s not trying to sway you with its upbeat perkiness. It’s not a brand.

Instead, the label “concreteness fading” describes–literally, if a bit awkwardly–the method itself.

Step 1: Start concrete.

Step 2: Shift from concrete to abstract. (And, because abstract things are less concrete than concrete things, let’s us the verb “fade” to describe that shift.)

Other methods include this strength.

“Retrieval practice” means “practice by retrieving, not by reviewing.” The name is a literal description.

Lots of people doubt the usefulness of “project-based learning,” especially for novice learners. But, the name itself has the benefit of direct clarity. Those who doubt PBL can argue against it without constantly saying “I’m not against X, I’m against this thing called ‘X’.”


Let me conclude with a plea to people who name teaching methods: the more direct and literal your brand, the more honestly teachers and researchers can discuss it.

And, if the method itself has merit, then that honesty will work in your favor.


category: L&B Blog

4 Responses to A Hidden Strength of “Concreteness Fading”

  1. Stanford Prof Blenner- Hasset (.sp?) in Ca 1948
    marked my first essay as “F” because I used the word “concrete” as an adjective modifying things other than stone.
    Such use was jargon. C

  2. James Moore says:

    Administrator forwarded your article and I really enjoyed it.
    Thank you!

  3. Diana J. Taylor says:

    Yes, it is encouraging to see this topic receive attention!
    Concrete experiences are critical for the learner. They develop the foundation for all other learning events and for transferring knowledge ( McTighe & Willis 2019). Just try to follow directions to a new location without having a firm understanding of the concepts being used in the task. The void is unavoidable. LOL
    Without the concrete awareness of a concept, students may develop what we call “splinter skills”. Students can perform a rote task as long as it appears in the format of a known pattern. However, they do not understand it well enough to apply this knowledge or skill to a different task without more instruction. Autonomy is not often available to them. And unfortunately too many educators assume a students learn through repetition verses awareness.
    When a learner fully understands the concept behind what is being taught, they have the power to take command of what they are practicing. Something that typically occurs during PBL experiences. Without this empowerment, a student must take one step at a time, as directed by their teacher. Thus, the “slow boring road” to their destination.

    There are actually three stages of concrete learning experiences that develop a sound foundation for abstract usage (Ann Boehm). If a learner is able to experience each of the 3 simple stages, they weave a foundation for every future learning encounter with that concept. Just ask them about what they are learning, they will tell you!

    Stage 4 is where concepts cross over into the abstract applications. I am currently researching how concepts evolve into abstract concepts, which in turn constitutes the advanced academic systems we use. At this point I have hypothesized four stages of abstract complexity. As academic content becomes more complex, we can identify how simple concepts have joined up with others and together the applications assimilate into complex meanings. Once a teacher understands how this system works, they can masterfully dissect where and how a student has not understood the concept and repair the void.
    In short: Concepts must have a concrete foundation in order to thrive and expand!
    Thank you for sharing this insight…I’d love to hear more of what educators know, and what they challenge.

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