Potato, Potahto

Things have come to a pretty pass,

Our romance is growing flat,

For you like this and the other

While I go for this and that.

Goodness knows what the end will be,

Oh, I don’t know where I’m at…

It looks as if we two will never be one,

Something must be done.


You say eether and I say eyether,

You say neether and I say nyther,

Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,

Let’s call the whole thing off!

You like potato and I like potahto,

You like tomato and I like tomahto,

Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!

Let’s call the whole thing off!

 “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by Louis Armstrong

I have to admit that when I initially began reading about Concept Attainment, I did not immediately recognize the value that this instructional strategy can have for students. On the surface, it appears as if students are merely engaged in the task of creating either/or lists, potato or potahto. Despite the assertions of Dell’Olio & Donk (2007) that it can be applied to most academic subjects, the arts and even kinesiology, Concept Attainment felt very much a solely math and science instructional strategy. Though descriptive and useful examples of Concept Attainment in action, I think that because there were only math and science examples provided in the text, I initially felt this strategy was not applicable to my content area.

Refreshingly, as I’ve delved more into the readings and allowed the idea of Concept Attainment to percolate in my mind, I’ve begun to realize the value that it can have across content areas. Indeed, the cognitive value of teaching students to identify similarities and differences is pointed out by Dean, Hubler, Pitler & Stone (2012) “We ask, “Is this like that?” By answering the question we enhance our existing mental representation or abstract schema for the information. This increases the likelihood that we will make connections to the schema when we encounter more new information and be able to make sense of that information” (p. 119).  Dean et al. (2012) goes on to elaborate a methodology that makes sense to me which includes activating prior knowledge, introducing new knowledge, asking students to create connections followed by applying and demonstrating their understanding. The specific stages of a Concept Attainment model as described by Dell’Olio & Donk (2007) are as follows:

  • Teacher Preparation Prior to the Lesson- identification of exemplars and non-exemplars
  • Introduction of Exemplars and Non-exemplars- students analyze the critical attributes of two or three sets
  • Generating Hypothesis- individual students state a rationale for their hypotheses while the class checks for accuracy against attributes
  • Testing and Affirming Hypotheses- confirm against new set of exemplars, consider a new hypotheses if necessary
  • Analyzing the Cognitive Road Map- students describe the steps and strategies they used to arrive at their conclusions

While I have not deliberately used Concept Attainment as an instruction strategy in the past, I wonder if I could adapt this methodology to a language arts classroom? I haven’t exactly worked this out in my mind, but I think drawing from the precepts of Concept Attainment could be an interesting means to develop student’s ability to pull relevant evidence from a text to support an argument when writing an analysis of a text. In the past, this has been one of the most difficult and time consuming skills I’ve undertaken with students. One idea is to have students categorize character’s statements (from a novel) into two groups that represent opposing themes. For example, prejudice vs. racial tolerance in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird could be one way to categorize concepts. The whole class could begin with a couple sets of teacher provided exemplars, in this case quotations from the different characters in the novel that they would have to categorize then hypothesize why they were placed in opposing categorizes. Next, students (in small groups) could look for their own exemplars (from the text) and talk about their thinking as to why their contextual examples were appropriate exemplars or not. The final stage would be metacognitive as the whole class rejoins to present their lists and describe their strategies and thinking process. Members of the other groups would be in charge of ensuring that each group “got it right”, stating why they believed the categorizations were exemplars or non-exemplars.

One tricky aspect of Concept Attainment is the initial careful identification of critical attributes of my teacher provided exemplars, and there is no doubt that there would be an aspect of teacher preparation that goes along with utilizing this instructional strategy. Yet, these seem like minor details compared to the potential value that this instructional strategy has to not only provides students a means to cognitively categorize their thinking, but also “think aloud” while they’re doing it. This shared metacognitive analysis allows for students to gain multiple strategies as they listen to each other’s accounting of carrying out the same task. So, while one student may say potato and another says potahto, we can still find a common ground from which to learn.


[Writer unknown]. [Date unknown]. Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. [Recorded by Louis Armstrong]. Accessed from http://www.lyrics007.com/Louis%20Armstrong%20Lyrics/Let’s%20Call%20The%20Whole%20Thing%20Off%20Lyrics.html

Dean, Hubbell, Pitler, & Stone. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement 2nd Edition. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Dell’Olio, Jeanine M. & Donk, Tony. 2007. Models of Teaching: Connecting Students Learning With Standards. California: Sage.


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