The Need to Build Concepts and Theories

In response to the issues raised at the beginning of the chapter, the individuals’ need to build concepts and a more complex knowledge based on concepts including facts, data, principles, and theories will be analyzed here.

Concepts can be considered basic units of knowledge (Barsalou, 1992; Rosch, 2000). They are a representation of classes that include elements— cases or instances—that share common features (Clark, 1983). Because of concepts, we need not address the uniqueness of elements in the world and can treat them as equivalent instances—elements or cases—that are not identical. Thus, for example, the concept of ‘table’ is the representation of a class that includes a number of instances—different types of tables—that, being different, share common features that allow them to be considered tables. Similarly, the concept of ‘citizen’ is the representation of a class that includes a series of cases—millions of citizens—who, being different, share common features and are all considered citizens. Concepts are essential for organizing the world and making sense of it. Without conceptual knowledge, the environment would be chaotic, and interaction with the physical and social world would not be possible.

Not only do concepts organize the immediate physical and social environment, they also organize knowledge regarding the different theoretical disciplines that provide explanations about the world (Thagard, 2012). For example, in history, the concept of ‘war’ identifies periods of tension, strife, struggle, or political and social confrontation. Additionally, there are subordinate categories of ‘war’ that help distinguish different types of wars, including ‘civil war,’ ‘world war,’ ‘cold war,’ and ‘holy war’. Organizing the world around us, so that it does not become chaotic and one can function in it, is as important as organizing disciplinary knowledge because concepts are units that are articulated to provide more profound explanatory models of the world (Thagard, 2014). When we learn disciplinary knowledge, in history for example, we learn conceptual base knowledge—declarative knowledge—that we use and put at the service of our actions—procedural knowledge.

As explained elsewhere (Rodrfguez-Moneo & Aparicio, 2004), declarative knowledge is somewhat similar to what people commonly known as theoretical knowledge. Indeed, declarative knowledge is descriptive knowledge of the world that is susceptible to being said or declared. This knowledge is based on concepts and can vary depending on how reality is described: in terms of concepts (e.g., democracy is a political regime), events (e.g., in 1492, Columbus came to the shores of America), principles or change relations (e.g., artistic manifestations vary depending on the knowledge of the technique), and theories. Declarative knowledge may also vary depending on the scope of the reality it describes, for example, history, literature, or mathematics. On the other hand, procedural knowledge is similar to what is commonly known as practical knowledge. Indeed, this is know-how knowledge, and it is characterized by the fact that it cannot be said or declared. It only expresses itself through action, either as a physically observable action (e.g., drawing the political map of a continent) or a mental action (e.g., interpreting an actual event from a series of historical processes). This knowledge may also vary according to the different areas of reality to which it refers.1

Acquiring concepts related to history is essential for building a structure of knowledge about history and to be able to think historically (Levstik & Barton, 2015). The paradigm of learning history has changed from a more traditional perspective focused on learning facts, data, and concepts to a new perspective—developed in the 1990s—in which learning history is viewed as the ability to think historically (Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008). The difference between the two perspectives is not that the current concept does not value the learning of data, facts, concepts, principles, and theories but rather that all this declarative knowledge of history is placed at the service of the action of thinking about history with the procedures (procedural knowledge) employed by historians. This is what it means to think historically (see, for example, Wineburg, 1991; see also Nokes, in this volume).

Concepts underlie thought processes (Carey, 2011), and, therefore, historical concepts are essential for thinking historically.2 First, concepts are needed to solve problems. Without concepts, it is impossible to understand the general approach to a problem and the intermediate stages reached in the resolution process. Let us take a simple example. A historical problem that requires, for example, ‘analyzing the causes of a revolution’ can hardly be understood and solved without the concept of ‘revolution’. In addition, understanding and solving the problem will depend on the concept that one possesses about what a revolution is, what causes it, how it develops, and what its consequences are. Van Drie and Van Boxtel (2008) demonstrate how some skills necessary for historical thinking reflect different types of problems (e.g., asking historical questions, contextualizing, arguing) that require historical concepts.

Second, the effect of concepts on thought is related to people’s ability to make inferences and, thus, reading between the lines. This virtue of making inferences is particularly relevant in history, especially when we consider that history involves a reflection on the past that allows a projection into the future.

Inferences contribute to the development of explanations about the world. Anderson (1995) distinguishes between categorical inferences and causal inferences. The former refer to a set of characteristic traits grouped around a concept. For example, if we talk about the concept of ‘social class,’ a categorical inference would be linked to ‘level of income’. The latter type of inference, causal inference, is established on a predictive basis regarding the influence of one event on another; for example, knowing that ‘switch’ is associated with ‘turning on’ or ‘turning off’ a light or that ‘an increase in poverty’ is related to ‘increased social instability’. The type of inference is not far from conceptual representation (Glass & Holyoak, 1986). In history, inferences are not only made regarding the future but also are drawn in the analysis of sources and historical texts, for example; and these inferences depend on the individual’s level of knowledge (Voss & Wiley, 2006).

Inferences are possible because concepts are not isolated but interrelated. Indeed, the meaning carried by concepts is based on the relationship with other concepts—in the definition of a concept, other concepts always come into play (Medin & Heit, 1999). Relationships between concepts may constitute taxonomic structures—a hierarchical structure such as the concept of ‘war’ noted above—and partonomic structures3—part/whole relationships such as the characterization of different periods of invasion of one nation by another. They may also constitute structures of principles—relationships between variations of concepts, such as the relationship between poverty and social instability; when one increases the other tends to increase as well. Furthermore, concepts are organized around theories, that is, the conceptual structures formed by causal links (Carey, 1985, 1992, 2009). When relationships are predictive or causal, the stronger the link between concepts, the more significant the knowledge is, resulting in greater explanatory power.

There is a long history of research in psychology—developed since the 1950s to the present—in which the effect of expertise on people’s knowledge structures is analyzed. To that end, a great amount of research has been conducted on experts and novices from various fields of knowledge. These studies show that among other issues, novices have less conceptual base knowledge. In addition, their knowledge is less connected and structured, not only from a theoretical perspective—resulting in less explanatory power, for example, with less predictive or causal value—but also less structured when put to use (Chi,

Glaser & Rees, 1982). In the case of history, as in other fields, it has been observed that novices have lesser understanding and much simpler explanations. They tend to explain events in response to a cause and not to a set of causes (Voss & Wiley, 2006; Voss, Wiley, & Kennet, 1998). In addition, the different areas of a historical and social reality (e.g., political, economic, etc.) are independently conceived by novices rather than interrelatedly. Finally, they understand historical reality as though it were a state instead of a process. All these factors contribute to a static rather than dynamic perception of history (Carretero & Lee, 2014). The differences between experts and novices in history, as in other disciplines, are not alien to its conceptual and procedural knowledge structure (Limon & Carretero, 1999). Thus, the greater the individual’s expertise the more comprehensive, connected, organized, and complex the explanations of the conceptual structure in which his or her historical narrative is based (Voss & Wiley, 2006).

The relationship between concepts influences the learning process. Learning happens on the basis of what is already known, and new concepts are learned on the basis of existing concepts (e.g., Levstik & Barton, 2015; Medin & Heit, 1999). This undoubtedly has educational consequences. If students’ conceptual base knowledge is incomplete but appropriate for learning, then the subsequent learning will not be distorted and the new educational content will be suitable for being taught. However, if the conceptual structure is inadequate, it will distort learning. In the latter case, before beginning to teach new content, it will be necessary to work on this prior knowledge.

In summary, we could say that concepts not only allow for sorting and organizing the elements of the environment but also provide explanations about the world, allow people to interact in it, and serve as the basis for learning (Thagard, 2012).

Now, individuals interact with a physical and social environment, and they need to organize it and have explanations to function in it long before disciplinary concepts and explanations are taught at school. In everyday life, many concepts and theories that are studied in the social sciences and history are used. For this reason, in everyday contexts, people build intuitive concepts and theories on history before they are taught to them in academic settings. Given that individuals are novices, the concepts and intuitive theories they develop are based on outstanding traits perceived or on the most characteristic features of the phenomena they observe. However, scientific theories, developed by experts in a discipline, focus on more defining aspects and on the implementation of rules. As Thagard (2014) notes, scientific concepts often emerge from everyday concepts but serve as a starting point to provide more in-depth explanations in terms of components or underlying mechanisms that are not always discernible to human perception. Conceptual change would imply accessing the correct understanding of concepts and theories in terms of their underlying mechanisms to achieve a correct and accurate knowledge that would allow subjects to understand the world and function in it.

Let us examine some processes involved in the construction of intuitive knowledge and in the process of conceptual change to make an in-depth description of the intuitive theories and conceptual change in history.

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