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Scaffolding a Transferable Approach to Conceptual Thinking

Two fundamental questions

In previous posts I have shared Six Transfer Questions that I think would offer a bridge between subjects. The premises for the 6 Transfer Questions has been detailed here and potential for informing student ideas here. These questions were designed to be "meeting places" where disciplines could compare and contrast approaches that they use to conceptually grapple with "Meaning" and "Change".

More recently I unpacked the underlying strands within the 6TQs here. The more I think about it the more I am tending towards the idea that even these 6 questions are simply riffs on two core questions that underpin all understanding. On everything we study or consider we are asking these two fundamental questions:

ONE: How does it fit?
TWO: How does it influence or be influenced?

Embodied Cognition

What has emboldened this idea is my recent discovery of Embodied Cognition and the work of Barbara Tversky:

In simplistic terms her understanding is that we treat abstract thoughts as objects. We therefore form ideas in ways that we see objects behave. Objects have categories, can be placed in relation to each other, inside one another, alongside one another and be moved about - the idea of embodied cognition is that treat ideas in the same way.

Terms associated with this field are image schemas (the categorisations that we give to types of ideas), graphical organisers (templates that we can use to express such ideas), visual-spatial memory (how the memory stores information) and dual coding (the importance of both including factors in embedding memory). For the interested these terms provide hours of fresh rabbit holes to dive down whilst on Google.

Returning to the 2 fundamental questions.

Two early identified types of idea (visual schema) were that of CONTAINMENT (ideas/objects in their relationship to each other) and PATH (the route ideas/objects move through).

To precis such a large field in so few words does not give it justice but it occurred to me that there is significant overlap with the ideas of embodied cognition and the fundamental questions posed above.

When we are learning the abstract ideas in a subject our brains treat these ideas as objects. They establish where this idea-object fits into the current organisational system and then we figure out whether it is moveable by (or is a mover of) other idea-objects.

Or in other words:

ONE: How does it fit?
TWO: How does it influence or be influenced?


For me, I feel that it is vital that we unpack what progression in understanding looks like. In addressing what progression in our organisation of ideas and influence of those ideas we need to move from labelling through explaining and into weighing up fine balances of conceptual understandings. I have tried to express this in the following simple table (Note: those of us familiar with Bloom's taxonomy (and subsequent revisions) will appreciate the loose connection to terms within it):

Critique of Current Concept Based Learning Approaches

I would argue that much of the current work of Concept based curriculums stays in the low level of this progression. We are either caught simply identifying concepts as they arise (spotting the 'key concept' etc) or through simplistic generalisations of connections between concepts (writing the 'statement of inquiry' etc).

We need to help students build structures for their ideas, understand the interactions that exist between ideas and how change occurs through the influence of competing factors.

By adopting a similar language and practice of these things in all subjects I believe that the potential of transfer of ideas (for comparison and even hybridisation) is increased in possibility.

Here's where Graphical Organisers come in ... but that's for another post.

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