So what is a concept anyway?

So what is a concept anyway?

UWCSEA is working hard to utilize concept based teaching and learning (CBTL) at the school. It is an exciting journey and one that has already borne fruit for me personally. Through concept mapping units before I teach them, I have gained a greater insight into the connections between concepts that I am trying to teach. I have also had several lightbulb moments about the order in which I teach those concepts. Even better, it is useful for me as a tool or reflection. As I teach, I play around with the concept map and change the order based upon what worked and what didn’t. I then have a record of my learning for the next time I teach that content.

However, I have had several conversations with colleagues (who all seem to see the value in CBTL) about what a concept is. The general outcome is that no-one really seems to be clear. Joe Novak defines a “concept” as:

“ a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label.”

The first time I saw this definition, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. I find it very cumbersome and the repeat of the terms ‘events’ and ‘objects’ makes it difficult to interpret. So, I thought I might unpack it a little bit and see what I come up with.

Unpacking the definition

There are several terms in the definition and I think it is important to be clear on what each one might mean. I will then try to turn the definition into some diagrams. I understand things best when they are laid out diagrammatically. It might also help you and it might not. Hopefully, the text will add some meaning. I will then use these diagrams to work through an example concept: the electron in chemistry.

So, firstly, what do these words mean in the definition? This is what I think:

Term What might it mean?
Label Every concept has a word that stands for it e.g. electron
Perceived Every concept is perceived to exist. We can sense it somehow.
Regularity in events/objects A concept might have several events/objects within it and no matter where that concept is applied those events/objects still stand true and are unchanged. I think this bit is important to our understanding.
Events/objects These are things that define the concept. They happen or exist.
Records of events/objects Concepts can also contain several records of events or objects (not quite sure what this one means). Maybe it has something to do with experimentation or the writing down of events/objects so that we know they happened. Then they can be used to define a concept.

So diagrammatically it might look like this:

That concept can be applied to different subjects/situations/contexts with the label, objects, events, and records of objects/events remaining constant. Those things are still true for the concept. However, it is being applied in a different context. There is some extra meaning added to the concept by the context. Diagrammatically that might be represented like this:

An example

So, what about a real life example? Take an electron. I would argue that it is a concept. Why? Because it has a label: electron. When I say that label, certain truths come to mind that are true for the electron no matter where it is. These are the objects, events, or records of objects and events. For example (disclaimer, there are certainly more things to add here and there may be debate about some of these facts, but I am keeping it simple for explanation purposes) an electron:

  • has a negative charge,
  • has a mass of 1/1840,
  • will exist at a quantized energy level.
  • has a symbol of e-

This can be represented below:

Without these things, it is not an electron. If these things change, then we have a different concept. So for example, if the relative charge is not -1 but is instead +1, we have a new concept which is the proton.

The electron could then be applied in different contexts and scenarios. For example, the electron could be in the first or second energy level. All of the universal truths about an electron still apply, but the context of it being in a different energy level has given it some slightly different meaning. The electron in the second energy level has more energy than the electron in the first energy level but it is still an electron. It still has a relative charge of -1, a relative mass of 1/1840, exists in a quantized energy level and has the symbol e-:

Now, I may have gone down a completely incorrect path here, but this explanation seems to make sense to me. I would be interested to hear some thoughts on this. Might I have it all wrong? What is your interpretation of the term concept?

If you like this model, maybe you can apply it to a concept in your own subject. I would love to hear about that too!

Photocredit: CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr: Link

2 thoughts on “So what is a concept anyway?

  1. Hey Louie, great to be a part of a community where so many of us are exploring this really important challenge.

    I’ve been struggling to write something about conceptual understanding, too, but coming at it from a different angle through a focus on language. I’m particularly influenced by the philosopher Joseph Rouse who takes a very scientific view in arguing that concepts are normative communicative spaces evolved through filling niches in our needs as a species. Simplifying this into my own inadequate explanation: humans are unique because we have evolved language; language in turn is a capacity to represent key characteristics of the world that, in our evolving need to shape our environment, we have carved out as niche intellectual tools to allow us to manipulate that environment. In simplest terms, language is conceptual (my view, not necessarily Rouse’s) and it provides us with the tool we need to manipulate the world in the abstract prior to going to work in literal terms. Interestingly this is nicely mirrored by some recent theories of memory which suggest that the human brain’s capacity for memory is as much evolved to allow us to predict and manage the future as it is to remember the past.

    In common with your formulations, I would see an important question about any concept to be: “what does it help us to do or know?” and “where does it fit within the function and history of this discipline?”

    I’m struggling and writing my way through to greater understanding and very much enjoying the journey. Great to be part of a community where so many others are, too.

    Here’s one of my earlier attempts…


  2. Hi Louie,

    I think it’s pretty incredible that across all schools we are all having these conversations about CBTL. It says a lot about our staff and the interest in mastering craftsmanship. I think unpacking the definition is tricky and I like how you laid it out in a chart and diagrammatically. Your point about the order you teach concepts in was one that really resonated with me. I think that some topics can be taught as concepts depending on how they are taught and the order/path that the information and questions are presented.

    Concept mapping has helped our team come to a common understanding of the macro and micro concepts that we feel are important to teach in a unit, along with the order that these concepts are taught. Mapping these out has helped us prioritise what we teach and also helped clarify the authentic connections that can be made between concepts. My understanding of what a concept is definitely ongoing. I think of it as something bigger than a topic and something that is transferrable. Novak’s term label is something that I’m still thinking about. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.