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Is Your Learning Content Reinforced with Concrete?

NOTE: This is an updated version of my post originally published on

Ever taught a concept or principle, or described an object, thinking that you were clear as a bell, only to have your students call or email you, or ask you in class, days or weeks later, asking you to explain it again?

How do you help your audience walk away with the same meaning of a given topic or concept?

By being concrete; that is, using sensory data and descriptions to describe that thing you want them to understand and remember. Concrete is the Made to Stick principle we will focus on today.

Before we jump in...take a good look at the highlighted picture above...

The picture of Concrete represented above is a great example of what this post will teach you.

No doubt you've seen a similar concrete wall many times in your life so far. Maybe, like me, that's concrete represents the still unfinished state of your basement.

So let's run with that're standing in your unfinished basement staring at that concrete wall.

What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does is smell like? What does it sound like? And, if you're adventurous, what does it taste like?

Do you have strong sensory and mental images to each of those questions? Good. Now we can move on.

The Currency Schema

For example, let’s examine the term currency. When I’ve asked, "When you think of the term currency, what comes to mind" this question in my workshops, I typically get these responses:

Cash, moolah, dough, coins, dollar bills, stacks of money, etc.

Those responses hit on the general characteristics or properties of currency and are similar to the schema concept that we talked about in the first post on Made to Stick.

But the concept of the schema, in and of itself, doesn’t help with getting your students on the exact same page. In the same town, perhaps,...

So, here's our challenge as educators: How do we present a concept in such a way that we have the absolute best chance of our students all walking away with the same meaning?

According to Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, you have to ensure that your concept or message is concrete.

May I Have Your Concrete Currency, Please?

Let’s contrast our term currency against a crisp $5 bill. And since we’ve already talked about the properties of currency, let’s dissect our crisp $5 bill using our senses.

  • What do you see when you look at the crisp $5 bill?

  • When you bring it up to your nose, what do you smell?

  • When you pick up the $5, what do you feel?

  • When you rub it between your fingers, what do you hear?

Starting to get the picture here? When you incorporate sensory information into your description, you make that object or concept less abstract and more concrete.

What’s The Weather Forecast?

A friend or colleague in a different state posts or texts: "Wow, it's gonna be a hot one today!” The first question that pops into your head is most likely: How hot? What your friend considers to be hot may not register on your interpretation of “hot.” It’s all relative, right?

Where you grew up or where you now live greatly impacts one’s definition of “hot”.

Want to make that “It’s gonna be a hot one today” statement crystal clear? Add this line: "Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.”

Suddenly, with just that one sentence, you’ve introduced a slew of sensory information.

  • In your mind, you can see that egg cooking on the sidewalk.

  • You can hear it cooking and you can probably smell it too.

  • And, through the power of classical conditioning, you might even be salivating as you imagine the taste of the egg (minus those crunchy sidewalk bits).

  • Maybe in your mind you even feel the urge to poke the egg with your finger, to test its doneness?

Swell analogy, Ken, but I can’t fry eggs in my classroom. How can I really use this concept?

Concrete Should Be A Foundation Of Your Course

For you as a trainer, instructor or educator, how can you use the Concrete principle in your content and your classroom?

  • Choose a subject or program that you teach. What concepts, topics or key takeaways are your students just not getting - as indicated by their recall in class or on tests?

  • Pick one topic and analyze if it appears to be more concrete or more abstract in its current form.

  • If, in your analysis, the topic appears to be somewhat concrete, identify what sensory information is currently represented. Then, incorporate other sensory information to make the topic as concrete as possible. For that specific topic, what should your students see? Hear?

  • For example, in the book they describe elementary school teach Jane Elliott and her lesson on discrimination with her elementary students in 1968 (which is a classic example in the world of psychology).

  • For those topics that are too conceptual, design practical, hands-on activities that your students can engage in.

  • Better yet, think of unexpected ways to design those practical, hands-on activities.

Concrete is more than a man-made substance. It is a necessary foundation to your course, enabling your students to understand and remember the key concepts, topics and takeaways that you want them to learn and apply.

Where can you see an immediate application or need for being more concrete in your course or classroom?


As Chief EMU Wrangler at The EMU Experience, LLC, Ken helps learning professionals deliver engaging, memorable and unexpected learning experiences. By teaching practical techniques to purposefully increase student engagement, along with methods that incorporate creativity into the design and delivery process, Ken can help you create a learning experience that is engaging, memorable and unexpected.

Got questions? Email Ken –

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