About the Author

Walter Parker is a professor of education and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Washington. He specializes in the civic development of children and adolescents, and social studies curriculum and instruction K-12.

Concept Formation

What Is It?

Concept Formation is an inductive teaching strategy that helps students form a clear understanding of a concept (or idea) through studying a small set of examples of the concept.


Concepts are the “furniture” of our minds. A well-furnished mind is a source of joy, academic success, citizenship, career satisfaction, and lifelong learning. When a student forms a concept from its examples, he or she knows more than the definition of a term (e.g., river: he or she also knows some vivid examples of the concept that add flesh to a bare-bones definition, such as the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and the Volga). This is deep conceptual learning rather than superficial knowledge of a vocabulary word.


A concept is defined by critical characteristics shared by all examples of the concept. For something to be an example of a concept, it must contain all these critical characteristics. To help students form the concept, the teacher helps them first to see these critical characteristics across different examples and, then to summarize those characteristics in a definition that students themselves write. Here are some concepts and examples: Justice (fairness) Taking turns Writing down the rules Applying rules equally to everyone Technology Steamboat Morse code Airplane Computer Chip Community Mesa Verde Jamestown Washington, DC Tokyo Migration Oregon Trail Ellis Island immigration The Great Migration Angel Island immigration There are two key parts to Concept Formation. Students begin by studying multiple examples of the concept to be learned, and then the teacher helps them see the similarities across these examples. When these similarities are established in students’ minds, they form the concept.

Teacher Preparation
  1. Select a concept. Choose one that is at the core of your curriculum. It might be one of the five themes of geography (movement, region, human-environmental interaction, location, or place) or a key tool of historical reasoning (thesis, evidence, sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating). It could be a concept used to understand media (advertisement, documentary, home page) or the economy (good, service, production, distribution, money).
  2. List the critical characteristics of the concept. Check several sources to find the clearest set of characteristics. For example, Democracy is (1) a kind of government in which (2) the majority rules (rules and laws are made by all citizens or their representatives), (3) minority rights and individual liberties are protected, and (4) rules and laws are written down. Or, modernization involves (1) the use of technology to control nature’s resources, (2) the use of inanimate (non-animal) sources of power and energy, and (3) the use of tools to multiply the effects of human energy. Be sure to list the critical characteristics. This will help you and your students more easily see which characteristics are present or missing in a particular case.
  3. Assemble a good set of examples. A good set of examples is small in number (3–4), varied (shows the array of differences allowable within the concept), and developmentally and culturally appropriate (know your students). Be sure that each example has all the critical characteristics required for the concept. Furthermore, select examples for which plenty of up-to-date information is available.
  4. Make a data-organization chart. Down the left side, present the 3–4 examples. Across the top, ask 3–5 focus questions. These questions help focus your students' data-gathering on the critical information in each example. Each student will need a copy of the chart; also, post a chart on the wall or project it onto a screen. See handout one.
  5. Assemble a good set of non-examples. Identify 2–3 non-examples that can be used to help students classify after they have formed the concept. A non-example has some, but not all, of the critical characteristics that define the concept. Non-examples make great practice items.
In the Classroom

For the concept democracy:

  1. Interest building. Remind students of a recent classroom meeting in which a vote was taken to resolve a classroom or playground issue. Lead a discussion on the question, “Is majority rule always fair?”
  2. Assess your students’ pre-instructional understanding of the concept.
      • What is democracy?
      • Is the United States a democracy? Why or why not?
      • Are our weekly classroom meetings democratic? Why?
  3. Studying multiple examples. Create a data-organization chart that contains four examples down the left column and focus questions across the top. These questions focus students’ attention on the critical attributes. See handout 1. Direct students to use this chart to record information about each example. Provide students with time in class to find the information in their textbooks and complete the chart. Direct them to finish the chart as homework. Suggest that they look for regular elections in response to the first question and push them to find out who can and cannot vote.
  4. Noting differences. The next day, verify that students have completed the chart. Then ask students, “In what ways do these four governments differ?”
  5. Noting similarities. Ask, “In what ways are these four governments all alike?” Record students’ responses on the chalkboard for use in the next step. (Note: This is the phase of the lesson when students themselves identify the critical characteristics of the concept, which are the similarities across the examples.)
  6. Summarizing. Direct students to “take a few minutes now to jot down a summary of these similarities in one complete sentence. Let’s begin the summary with, ‘These are all ways of governing that. . . .’” Students compose their own definition of the concept, working with the list of similarities still on the chalkboard from Step 5. Allow time for sharing and listen carefully to the concepts they have formed. Provide feedback and correction as needed. Students then compose a second draft, taking more care to include all the critical attributes of democracy in their summaries.
  7. Labeling. Ask, “What is a word you might use to describe governments like these? Be creative—invent a word if you like. Make sure it captures the essence of this kind of government.” After eliciting several nicknames, tell students that the conventional label for this kind of government is democracy. Then use a good dictionary to read aloud the etymology of this Greek term for “rule by the people.”
  8. Application. Now that students have built a rough idea of democracy, it is time to reinforce and practice it with a classifying activity.
      • Classifying type 1. Ask students to read the brief description of the Plymouth Colony in their textbooks and then to decide whether it was a democracy. Ask for a show of thumbs (thumbs up for “Yes, it was a democracy”; thumbs down for “no”; thumbs sideways for “not sure”). Then ask for reasons.
      • Classifying type 2. Give students information about two or three other governments (China’s, Denmark’s, Japan’s) and ask them to decide which of them, if any, is a democracy. This time have them write down their reasons. Call on several students to share their decisions and reasons. See handout 2.
      • Classifying type 3. Form teams of three to four students and direct each team to brainstorm a fictional example of a democracy. Have them imagine themselves shipwrecked on an island with no chance of rescue; hence, they must create a society from scratch. Remind them to look back at their summaries to be sure the example they create has each of the attributes that all examples of democracies must have. Direct the teams to share their fictional examples and tell why they are democracies.
      • Classifying type 4. Tell students that you will describe an organization that is not an example of democracy. The students’ task is to describe the changes that would be needed to make it into a democracy. (Describe a modern military dictatorship or a Little League baseball club.)
  9. Summary. Ask a sample of students to review the critical characteristics of democracy.

Any of the four types of classifying in Step 8 will serve as a good assessment of the extent to which students have formed the concept. The proof is not in the decisions they reach (thumbs up; thumbs down), but in the reasons they give.

Common Pitfalls
  • Students may have a hard time keeping all the examples in mind at once. That’s why the data-organization chart is a helpful tool.
  • Distinguishing examples from non-examples is the act of classifying. If students have in mind a list of critical characteristics, they can more easily see which ones are present or absent in a given item; therefore, their classifying practice will be more successful.
  • Students cannot classify an item if they do not have enough information about it. To answer the question “Is Japan a democracy?,” students will have to study Japan to find out whether its government has the critical characteristics that democracies have.

In The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner writes: “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (1). This applies to most concepts. But the teacher needs to find examples that students of a particular age can grasp, and simplify the critical characteristics as needed. The critical characteristics common to the governments of the United States, Mexico, Canada, and democratic classroom meetings are these: the majority rules (rules and laws are made by all citizens or their representatives), minority rights are protected, and rules and laws are written down. These are the three characteristics students eventually should summarize under the name democracy. Is the resulting concept as complex as the one formed by college political science majors? Of course not, but it would be quite an achievement for 4th- or 5th-grade children.

(1) J. Bruner, The process of education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).

For more information

Alleman, J. and J. Brophy. Social Studies Excursions, K–3, Book One: Powerful Units on Food, Clothing, and Shelter. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. Parker, W. C. "Pluto's demotion and deep conceptual learning in social studies." Social Studies Review Spring/Summer (2008). Parker, W. C. Social Studies in Elementary Education. 14th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2011. Taba, H., M.C. Durkin, J.R. Fraenkel, and A.H. McNaughton. A Teacher's Handbook to Elementary Social Studies: An Inductive Approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1971.