A longstanding debate concerns the use of concrete versus abstract instructional materials, particularly in domains such as mathematics and science. Although decades of research have focused on the advantages and disadvantages of concrete and abstract materials considered independently, we argue for an approach that moves beyond this dichotomy and combines their advantages. Specifically, we recommend beginning with concrete materials and then explicitly and gradually fading to the more abstract. Theoretical benefits of this “concreteness fading” technique for mathematics and science instruction include (1) helping learners interpret ambiguous or opaque abstract symbols in terms of well-understood concrete objects, (2) providing embodied perceptual and physical experiences that can ground abstract thinking, (3) enabling learners to build up a store of memorable images that can be used when abstract symbols lose meaning, and (4) guiding learners to strip away extraneous concrete properties and distill the generic, generalizable properties. In these ways, concreteness fading provides advantages that go beyond the sum of the benefits of concrete and abstract materials.
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Fyfe, E.R., McNeil, N.M., Son, J.Y. et al. Concreteness Fading in Mathematics and Science Instruction: a Systematic Review. Educ Psychol Rev 26, 9–25 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-014-9249-3
- Concrete manipulatives
- Abstract symbols
- Learning and instruction