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Concept Attainment

This support material is incorporated into critical challenges at grades 6, 9, 11 and 12, however, it can be adapted for use at all grade levels.

The Concept Attainment strategy helps students identify the features that distinguish two concepts by sorting teacher-prepared examples of each concept and articulating their differences.

To use this strategy:

  • create paired sets (A and B) of examples (approximately five) built around two concepts you want students to explore (e.g., nationalism and ultranationalism, nation and state)
  • tailor the examples to help students develop an increasingly nuanced understanding of the differences between the two concepts
  • ask students to consider the differences between several matched examples to determine how the examples in Set A are similar to one another and how they differ from those in Set B

    • reveal one pair of examples at a time so students can compare an example from Set A with one from Set B
    • have students independently consider the distinguishing features of each set as the first three pairs of examples are revealed
    • after the third pair of examples is revealed, ask students to share their ideas with a partner or in a small group
  • provide clues to help students clarify or correct their hypotheses, if necessary
  • reveal the remaining examples
  • once all of the paired examples are revealed, ask students to share their thoughts about the common features or criteria for each set and the differences between the sets
  • ask students to suggest a label for each set.

Checking for understanding
Once students have generated hypotheses about the distinguishing features of examples in Set A and Set B, produce a few "tester" examples, one at a time, and encourage students to see if they can use the criteria to sort these as examples of Set A or Set B. The purpose of the testers is to refine student-developed criteria for distinguishing the two concepts and to confirm students' understanding of these differences.

Sample sets:

Set A

Set B

Apartheid in South Africa

Olympic Games

European imperialism

Triple Alliance


World Fairs, such as Expo '67

Front de Libération du Québec (The FLQ)

Conscription in the First and Second World Wars

Japan in the 1930s

Victory Bonds


Adapted from Critical Challenges Across the Curriculum series.  Permission granted by The Critical Thinking Consortium for use by Alberta teachers.

Last updated: July 1, 2014 | (Revision History)
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