The Latin derivative of concrete means “to grow together, harden,” and my first image of this term usually conjures up a block of cement or a sidewalk. I am drawn quickly to the “already hardened” image, the belief that I have cemented down an idea when I know something deeply. Concrete language and images are clear and tangible, and that’s why they are remembered and understood—cemented down in our memories. But what can we make of the more dynamic image, the process of fusing together that precedes hardening?
The fine and coarse aggregates that comprise actual concrete need water to initiate the hardening phase and become rock-like. The chemical reaction is dramatic and permanent—a fusing or growing together of the individual components. For students, solid images, rich examples, and colorful language comprise the aggregates that fuse course material over time. Instructors need presentations, class assignments, and projects that are embedded with these aggregates to deepen the impact of the course experience.
In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2008), authors Chip and Dan Heath note that of the six principles that characterize their model, “concreteness is perhaps the easiest to embrace. It may also be the most effective of the traits” (p. 129). Why? Because concrete language is the “universal” language” (p. 115) that all of us relate to. Across a day, we regularly and fluently speak concretely, and students in particular crave the concreteness of real-life examples to give meaning to course content.
Concrete ideas are grounded in the senses—what we see, hear, and touch—and this characteristic makes them firmly rooted in memory. Visualize the concept of a bicycle; contrast the clarity and speed of accessing that image with the difficulty of accessing the concept of transportation infrastructure. No contest.
This doesn’t mean instructors should avoid talking about abstract concepts. Instead, we need to be a bit more creative in creating the bridge toward concreteness; we need to look to the aggregate material, the layered series of concrete examples that build toward abstract understandings.
Typically, the term concrete is contrasted with abstract, and university courses are full of abstract concepts. Imagine an undergraduate course in philosophy in which the concept of truth is under debate. The conversation can easily spin into a fascinating set of propositions as one teases out its essence through argumentation and theory.
Consider next a criminology course in which truth is also under examination but in a radically different way: students are shown a police video that demonstrates stumbling behavior and slurred speech in a field sobriety test of a driver who may be under the influence of alcohol. The criminology students are experiencing a truth of concrete evidence and weighing what may be necessary to demonstrate if the case comes to a jury trial. Looking back to that philosophy course, might the abstract conversation also be layered – scaffolded – through a series of life scenarios to make use of the concrete to understand the abstract?
Think of an instructor’s language on the first class meeting in which the syllabus is being reviewed. Compare the following two ways that outline student success in this course:
Abstract: “To succeed in this class, you’ll have to work hard and be committed. You need to put a lot of effort into each assignment and prepare well for tests ”
Concrete: “Students have told me over the years that they need to do four things to succeed in my class: a) go to every class, b) do all your reading before you go, c) write several drafts of each paper, and d) review your notes regularly for each class.”
Which would students need to hear, particularly those who may be uncertain or anxious about their ability to achieve at a high level? How else might instructors use concrete experiences with past students to inform and enrich the learning experiences of their current students throughout the course?
Description with Petter Duvander’s photo: “Concrete pig, with a twist …thingys that are supposed to be disturbing traffic are called concrete pigs in Swedish. On our largest island, Gotland, rams are kind of mascots, so of course their pigs are rams instead.”
Becoming more concrete as a teacher can also involve the skilled use of imagery. In my disciplinary field of kinesiology, we leverage the principle of concrete heavily and regularly. For example, the meaning of an abstract idea such as “aesthetics” in a sport philosophy class can be visualized in reference to the pure athleticism of dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, the simultaneous power and grace of tennis player Serena Williams – frankly, in reference to world-class athletes in any sport who we see grow from novices to nimble professionals across a career. The ability of our students to recognize useful examples and generate their own is a direct reflection of their immersion into the language and imagery of this highly concrete discipline.
For any university course, consider the following tangible ways that students can show their capability to know and understand course material:
- Providing a demonstration/performance associated with a course assignment
- Displaying one’s understanding through a diagram or figure (e.g., concept map)
- Designing and conducting a mini experiment to test a hypothesis
- Taking a series of photographs that symbolize the focus of a class assignment
- Writing up a real-life story or narrative on a topic
- Solving a specific problem that is implied by a course objective
- Bringing forward a three dimensional artifact that supports a thesis or conjecture
- Shooting a video that captures the essence of a class project
Certainly, each of these eight tools are fully available for instructors to use as well in the design and delivery of a course.
To come full circle on the meaning of concrete and its Latin origin: Solidify course material for students through clear language, vivid imagery, and memorable examples. This dictum is difficult to ignore for instructors in virtually any university course. And for those of you who have always been “true believers” in the importance of leveraging the concrete principle:
- Push yourself to use language that helps students bridge the gap between complex ideas and their concrete manifestation.
- Leverage the power of examples whenever possible as they are a primary way in which students make sense of difficult ideas and concepts.
- Develop multiple concrete examples to spark conceptualizing processes and practices across a full, broad range of learners.
- Invent or uncover stronger and more relevant ways to represent your disciplinary content using more of the eight tools listed above.
- SUCCESS in Teaching – Simply an Introduction and a First Principle
- Active Learning will not (in itself) lead to SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 2, Unexpected
- Photos: Making Concrete series – HEA Engineering Subject Centre’s photostream, and Concrete Pig by Petter Duvander used under Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial licenses.
Blog Post by David Langley, CTL Director.