Bolstering conceptual understanding

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

Teachers exhort students to read for pleasure as reading can transport people across space and time, and can transform and enrich their lives. While they appreciate the invaluable benefits of reading, unfortunately, teachers don’t necessarily have the luxury of time to explore books as much as they would like to. Besides the hurly-burly of the work week that includes tight teaching schedules, lesson planning, test creation and correction, teachers have to motivate and mentor students. Additionally, as teachers also have personal responsibilities to fulfill, reading during non-working hours may take a backseat.

Through this column, I hope to awaken the reader in every teacher. Every other month, I will cover a book on education, either classic or contemporary. I hope to achieve three goals by penning this column. First, I would like to provide a snapshot or window into the theories and thinking of influential educationists so teachers can incorporate aspects they find inspiring or beneficial into their teaching. Next, by reading this column, teachers may be enthused to delve deeper by reading the original book being discussed. I also hope to ignite staffroom conversations as teachers debate, dissect and discuss issues raised in this column.

In his seminal book, The Process of Education, psychologist and educator, Jerome Bruner argues that a curriculum has to first stimulate and stir teachers if it is to have any impact on students. Further, he claims that every subject has a structure, which involves understanding “how things are related.” If curricula are meaningfully constructed, children are likely to discover the inherent structure of a discipline, which leads to deeper comprehension. For example, the fundamental tenets of algebra depend on understanding “commutative, distributive, and associative laws,” not in a mechanistic way but by appreciating their relational significance.

Why is it necessary for students to grasp the structure of a subject? Bruner avers that a subject becomes “more comprehensible” when students appreciate the ‘fundamentals’. Second, learning is more likely to result in long-term retention if it is rooted in conceptual understanding. That information learnt typically fades with time, unless repeatedly visited, is an undeniable feature of our fallible human memory. Bruner argues that while students may forget the details, they are more likely to remember “fundamental principles.” Thus, students of chemistry who apprehend the organization of the Periodic Table, may not recall the atomic number of specific elements years later, but if they are given the atomic number of a set of elements, they can figure out how they are sorted into rows and columns.

Bruner also emphasizes the importance of ‘doing’ or active learning. Unless students demonstrate their learning by applying theories, solving problems, transferring their knowledge, a teacher cannot really know how much or what aspects students have understood. Thus, while a teacher may expose students to the writing styles of different authors, a student’s discernment of style is evident only when he or she attempts to write in several styles.

As the fundamental principles of a subject are likely to be abstract constructs, teachers have to facilitate children’s thinking by moving from concrete modes to more conceptual ones. Foisting formal logical explanations that are beyond a child’s conceptual ken is unlikely to make a dent in their grasp of the subject. Thus, teachers have to be sensitive to children’s developmental capacities while also trying to extend their pupils’ faculties. Bruner cites the example of a social science teacher who presented fourth-graders with only one single fact. He told his students that many civilizations had sprung up around rivers. Children were then asked to examine why this was the case and to consider why civilizations didn’t first emerge in mountainous or desert regions. Instead of presenting students with a deluge of information, which they are likely to forget, this teacher put the onus of generating facts on the students, who had to back up their arguments and sources.

Another reason for highlighting the structure of a discipline or how concepts are connected is that it bolsters intuitive thinking. Compared to analytic thinking, intuition does not progress in measured, logical steps. Often, a person may come up with a solution, which may be correct or incorrect, without necessarily being able to explain his reasoning. According to Bruner, if a person is conversant with the fundamentals of a discipline and its structure, he or she can engage in what might be described as mental gymnastics. Thus, a person who understands how concepts are linked to one another, may “leap about, skipping steps and employing short cuts,” which can then be corroborated or negated by analytic methods.

When teachers look back on their student days, they may rue that they often failed to truly grasp the structure or interconnectedness of concepts in various subjects. However, that does not preclude you from discovering linkages now, as “teaching is a superb way of learning.” Bruner recalls a humbling anecdote of a college-level physics teacher. After introducing quantum theory to his students, he was met by a sea of “blank faces.” So, the teacher retaught the material but his students remained perplexed. Undaunted, the teacher pressed on for the third time, and then confessed, “That time I understood it.”

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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