What’s a concept?

‘Lack of conceptual clarity’ may be the most oft-repeated label/feedback on children. And helping build conceptual clarity is the biggest business in education – inside and outside of schools; ‘Smart classrooms’, ‘Gamification of learning’, career prep industry, adaptive assessments, and ‘4D visuals’ are just some of the tools professed to ‘teach concepts’.

However, the efficacy of it all is out in the open – none has worked; conceptual clarity in learning is significantly missing in school education. Knowing the complexity of education system, it should be no stretch to believe that the one big reason for the mass-scale problem in conceptual clarity is that we don’t really know what is meant by ‘concept’. We don’t work towards it and don’t see it on the ground.

Let’s explore the idea and the substantive expression of what we call concept(s).

Everything around us can be ‘deciphered’ at two levels-

I. Definitions / examples / methods / activities / experiments / projects:

This is a fair level of knowledge to operate at and it was very valued in times when knowledge had to be ‘carried in the head’, there were no ‘knowledge access/store aids’. And in such situations ‘rote knowledge’ of procedures and definitions hold sway because they are the only way to recall the necessary thread of knowledge at the time and place of usage/need.

Unfortunately, school exams and evaluation system are also such situations.

II. Concepts:

It’s the other level of knowledge transaction; procedures/definitions are incidental at this level and can easily be derived at any place or time. Several definitions and solutions, across subjects, can be recalled and applied if there is clarity of the underlying common/base knowledge (called concepts).

To attempt a definition, it’s perhaps far easier to start with what concept is not:

  • the definition (e.g., the concept of fraction is NOT its definition – a/b, b not equal to 0; or the concept of climate is not its definition – the long-term weather conditions of a place/region)
  • methods / procedures / activities / experiments / examples (these are specific manifestations of the concept, NOT concepts)
  • rigid domain / topic applicability of some knowledge (the concept of acceleration is not just a native of physics and the concept of metamorphic rocks is not just a native of geography)

It’s not easy to encapsulate concept in definitions but here is a list of components common to concepts:

  • every concept is essentially multi-disciplinary – concepts have expressions across domains of knowledge (the ‘concept of average’ has specific references in math, geography, biology, history etc.)
  • every concept is a ‘distinctive yet comprehensive story’ – for instance, prime numbers as a concept is actually ‘prime of the numbers’, multiplication is ‘repeated addition of like things’, concept of periodic table is not complete until it’s realized that ‘it is too good to be true’, concept of equation is ‘two expressions equated’ (not ‘an expression equal to zero’).
  • concepts are the vertex of collaborations of two or more subjects/domains – for instance, bio-math delivers value when we put together specific concepts of the domains in perspective (and not the ‘whole’ domains together)

Thus, concepts are broader and exclusive units of universal truth; due to the increasingly complex knowledge networks/linkages, concept-level understanding was never more important for life and living .

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