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Teaching through Examples

Consider these two scripts for explaining the term onomatopoeia:


“An onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.


“Examples of onomatopoeias are sizzle, pop, shush, beep, boom. All of these words sound like the audible event they are trying to represent. An onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.”

Leading education theorist Siegfried Engelmann tells us that script B is more effective in getting students to understand what an onomatopoeia is. He points out that examples can be a much more powerful teaching tool than simply saying “here is a new concept and here are three examples of it”. In fact, there are times when leading with the examples is a more efficient routine for students to understand the underlying concept. Often, this is particularly true of abstract ideas whose definition only truly makes sense if you already understand the concept.

In our onomatopoeia example, to understand the script in example A (the definition alone), you probably already needed to know what an onomatopoeia is – which, in our example, we assume the students wouldn’t. Additionally, if we’d given just one example of an onomatopoeia, students may not have picked up on the underlying idea. They may have focussed on the surface features. From just the example of sizzle, students might interpret onomatopoeia to mean sounds made by hot objects, or words from the kitchen, or just words with multiple letter ‘z’s.

Humans are wonderful inference machines*: we excel at comparing common features between multiple examples. We can use this in our teaching by carefully selecting a set of examples to highlight a notion and to show the boundaries of it. Simply giving one example isn’t adequate for students to see a new idea, because what property of the example is it that the example is referring to? As an artificial example, if I wanted to explain what a car is to a child who had never seen or experienced one and I only illustrated the concept by showing a single image of a red convertible driving quickly along a tree-lined road – the student might well interpret ‘car’ to mean ‘a red object with wheels’ or ‘any object with a removable top’ or ‘something that drives on roads’ or ‘something that travels fast’.

The second example that I present should alter the surface features to specifically rule out some of the possible inferences that students could make. By giving multiple examples where the surface features vary, the deep structure of the thought should become clearer and clearer over time, as the students compare the examples – under your guidance - and their innate inference abilities get to work. Think about what incorrect inferences you could still draw about what a car is from the two examples shown – this should inform what your next example should be.

Further to simply presenting students with examples of an abstract notion, we can include non-examples (examples that do not show the concept we are looking at) in our example sets to more clearly distinguish the deeper idea. These non-examples can be used to explicitly force students to ignore a particular surface feature from their thinking.

Thinking back to our earlier look at the word onomatopoeia, we might say “the word explosion is not an onomatopoeia. The sound of the word explosion is nothing like the sound of an actual explosion”. Equally, examples that are on the very boundaries of an idea can allow students to see the outer limits of that idea and hence form a clearer and more defined schema for the concept.

Now, the examples I’ve chosen here are deliberately overly simplistic to highlight the importance of examples when teaching. Hopefully, though, you can see how these ideas can be applied to your subjects and stage of education as examples are equally powerful from early years through to A-levels.

Please get in touch or @tchillimamp on Twitter if you’d like to give any feedback or discuss the idea further.

* In their 1982 work Theory of Instruction Engelmann and Carnine base their ideas on two principles: humans have the ability to see an example and recognise it as an exemplification of a more abstract concept and that humans develop abstract generalisations of concepts after exposure to a number of examples.

You can read more from Dr Millichamp by following his blog: or you can find him on Twitter: @TChillimamp. You can also follow Tom who writes and shares resources with a group of other likeminded science types by searching: #cogscisci

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