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Fish or Fowl?

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Meghan Wenzel, CEI Intern and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

What type of animal is a dog? Is ‘p’ a vowel or a consonant? What type of mathematical operation is 2 + 2? All of these tasks require us to recognize, identify, and use categories. By grouping individual items into collective cognitive basis for higher-level abilities like applying, analyzing, and evaluating (C8 Science, 2015). Thus it is a crucial skill to develop and use in school and in life.

Category formation touches all aspects of life. For example, preschool teachers help students learn about categories through practice with sorting and classifying such things with shapes and colors. Later in school, students learn to classify words into nouns, verbs, etc.  Later yet, category formation is critical when teachers instruct about geology and students learn about igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. We also use categories as we classify our likes and dislikes. Mentally, we may make judgments about the quality of our experiences and start to even unconsciously rank our experiences as great, okay, and awful.

Here are some considerations for teachers:


If students struggle with recognizing common characteristics between objects or concepts, they might struggle with category formation.

  1. Recognizing and using categories is at the basis of much of our cognitive activity, and being able to adapt to changing criteria is an additional challenge.

  2. Category formation is fundamental for higher-level cognitive abilities such as applying math concepts to a real world problem, analyzing the meaning of a poem, and evaluating an opponent’s argument in a debate.  

Other examples. Early language programs often include activities to help children learn to categorize and understand that ‘dogs’ for example belong to the category of ‘animals.’  At a later age, additional, more fine-grained categories are added. So, students, for example, then learn that ‘dogs’ are ‘mammals.’   As students progress, they are given tasks of sorting, so that they recognize that if it swims in water then it is more likely to be a fish than a bird, and if it flies in the sky and has a beak, it is more likely to be a bird.  Of course, we are left with ducks and geese and whales and dolphins as the exceptions. More categories.

Packing Panic

Learning is a balance between acquiring details and generalizing across them. The hippocampus (from the Greek hippos and kampos so named because of its resemblance to a seahorse) and prefrontal cortex play important roles.

  1. The hippocampus links elements of memories to create new associations.

  2. The prefrontal cortex differentiates instances where new associations share elements with existing ones. The prefrontal cortex focuses on pertinent differences between concepts and represents abstract rules, forming the basis for category-based boundaries (Pan & Sakagami, 2012).

Brain Training Programs

Today, in addition to the many classroom activities that are designed to help students recognize concepts through understanding classification and categories, teachers and students have access to an array of brain-training programs. The quality of these programs varies widely and not all of them are research based. Not all of them handle ‘category formation.’  CEI continues to peruse the research that is available on various programs, and thus far, we are most impressed with ACTIVATE the brain-training program developed by Dr. Wexler of Yale University.

  1. ACTIVATE helps students hone their ability to categorize incoming information to solve problems and improve their memory.

  2. Two of ACTIVATE’s six computer games challenge and support students’ category formation skills.

  3. In Pirate Pete’s Packing Panic, students are given a category and asked to click on dynamic objects if they fit into the specified category. As the students progress through the levels, the categories change more rapidly and the objects appear and move more quickly around the screen.

  4. In Ducks! students have to recognize patterns, which requires distinguishing and applying categories.

Some of ACTIVATE’s physical exercises also deal with category formation. In the team sports such as volleyball,

Packing Panic Instructions

Adjusting our Understanding of Categories

Some students are quick to understand and use categories, while others can benefit from additional practice to increase their efficiency of recognizing categories and using language more accurately. Remember learning about continents?  Or planets?  What about Pluto? Our ideas about concepts change as we gain knowledge. Students who can absorb new input more readily and adjust categories based on new evidence are able to learn more efficiently.


Pan, X., & Sakagami, M. (2012). Category representation and generalization in the prefrontal cortex. European Journal of Neuroscience, 35(7), 1083-1091.

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