Concept formation is a learning process by which items are classified, categorized, related to each other and converted into mental representations based on perceived commonalities.
A concept is a generalization that helps to organize information into meaningful categories. For example, the concept square is used to describe those shapes that have four equal sides and four right angles. Thus, the concept categorizes things whose properties meet the set requirements. The way young children learn concepts has been studied in experimental situations using so-called artificial concepts such as square. In contrast, real-life, or natural, concepts have characteristic rather than defining features. For example, a pigeon is a prototypical example of the concept bird. Penguins, because they are flightless, lack important defining features of this category, rendering them a weaker example of the bird concept.
Similarly, for many middle-class children the concept house represents a rectangular structure with walls, windows, and doors that provides shelter. In later development, the child's concept of house expands to include broader examples, such as apartment, houseboat, tipi, or igloo, all of which have some but not all of the prototypical characteristics that the child has learned for this concept.
Natural environment concepts are often learned through the use of prototypes, which are highly typical, often stereotypical, examples of a category, such as the pigeon cited previously. The other primary means of concept learning is through the trial-and-error or experimental method of testing hypotheses. Individuals make calculated estimates or guesses that a specific object is exemplary of a particular concept; they gather more information about the concept in order to determine whether their hypothesis is accurate.
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