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College Readiness: How to Help Students Think Abstractly

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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A rolling stone gathers no moss. Mick Jagger has moss? Don't cry over spilt milk. It's only milk, why cry? Too many cooks spoil the soup. I hate soup. Water under the bridge. Of course there is water under a bridge! A tiger's stripes do not change. Of course they don't! Birds of a feather flock together. Yeah, those Grackles downtown are so annoying. There must be millions of them.

A college-ready student can think figuratively, or in other words associate abstract ideas with concrete examples. One of the best ways to help students think abstractly is to engage them in the ancient wisdom of metaphors and sayings. Initially, their reactions will be like the ones above, but with a little practice, students will be able to arrive at the real meaning of the sayings.

Thinking abstractly is useful in understanding the richness of literature, both classical and modern. Carol's Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Suess' Horton the Elephant, Milton's Paradise Lost would all be incomprehensible without the ability to think abstractly.

The reason that algebra, geometry, and general mathematics challenge students is that they require students to think abstractly. The bane of most students -- the word problems -- are all about taking something concrete and transforming the situation into abstract symbols and numbers. Most problem-solving techniques require students to step back (figuratively) from the problem at hand (it could be at foot) and state the problem in abstract terms.

In order to help my students thinking and using the Spanish language, I printed a dicho (saying) such as, "En boca cerrada no entra mosca!" (in a closed mouth, flies don't enter -- my favorite) on the board and asked them to decipher the Spanish and then the true meaning. Once we got passed the literal interpretations, then students were usually able to arrive at approximate meanings. Some dichos just stumped them: "Al hambriento, no hay pan duro." (to the hungry, there is no hard bread), or "En casa del herrero, cuchillo de palo" (in the house of the blacksmith, a wooden knife). I found that the key was not to give the students the answers. I simply put on my Socrates robe and asked questions. These were very hard for my students, at first, but with practice, I had to ask fewer and fewer questions. The students began to see the deeper messages in the dichos and were able to transfer that skill to see deeper messages in Spanish humor and literature.

It was always illuminating and inspiring to watch as students caught the joke, or the meaning of a passage of literature. Students are often smarter than we give them credit for: El leon no es como lo pintan (the lion is not how it is painted).

How do you get your students to think abstractly?

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Please elucidate us.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]And revision of theory based on application.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I have to admit that I looked up that word. I totally agree. Metaphors are not the same animals as adages and proverbs, but all of them can incite more than just howling and braying. One of my favorite authors is Daniel Willingham, and he stated a fabulous concept thus," Memory is the residue of thought." This means that if I can just get the students thinking, then memory follows... there it is... the magic bullet that educators have been looking for since Socrates and before.

Thanks for the post!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]All wonderful comments and observations! I would caution everyone, though, not to conflate metaphors and adages/proverbs.[/quote]

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Any use of figurative language requires higher order thinking skills. I often begin with color. What do the colors on various flags represent? If you wanted to create a flag for this classroom, what colors would you choose and why? In reading various books such as Number the Stars, why do you think the author made the trunk blue? Why is the red coat in Schindler's List the only color? Why might a woman in Korea be offended by a white wedding gown? What role does culture play in how we interpret color? In time, my students saw meaning in all sorts of colors in their reading and viewing whether the author/director intended it or not. Independently, they began to come in and talk about how advertising uses color which in turn makes them more savvy about attempts to manipulate their emotional responses. It is doubly great that there isn't always a right answer. They are using higher order thinking. Love it!

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Analogies can be used in language, numbers and shapes. Developing facility of mind through analogies also helps with abstract thinking.

Andrew Schwei's picture
Andrew Schwei
High School Spanish Teacher from Jefferson, Wisconsin

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

Just this week, we finished reading "La casa de Bernarda Alba" by Federico Garcia Lorca in my AP Spanish Language class. I chose five "dichos" that could potentially apply to the events and themes of the play. Students had to choose the one that they thought best applied to the play and prepare a two-minute oral presentation to defend their choice (using specific examples from the play). Needless to say, the presentations and discussion surrounding them were of very high quality.

Abstract thinking is certainly key for students planning to attend college (and take AP Exams) but it is also an essential life skill. Thanks for the great post!

GRETTA's picture
Elementary and middle school Band and Orchestra teacher from Southern MD.

I have really enjoyed the posts on this exciting topic!

Pamela Walls's picture
Pamela Walls
Founder/President 10 G.I.R.L.S. Foundation

I direct an after-school program geared towards African-American middle school girls (I used to be one of them :}). I've developed a "Curriculum of Care" and one of the goals is to develop critical thinking skills . . . but I've been coming up short finding an entry point. This is a GREAT strategy that I am eager to incorporate.

Jamie Steffl's picture
Jamie Steffl
HS art teacher, tech integration specialist, & ISTE certified educator

I teach a unit on the artist Kandidnsky in which we study abstraction. In this unit students paint how music sounds. How's that for abstract thinking? The students listent to diffrent genres of music and paint that sounds they hear through the use of lines, shapes, and colors. In the end they see the music and hear the art! Abstract thinking and art accomplished.

GRETTA's picture
Elementary and middle school Band and Orchestra teacher from Southern MD.

Your integration of art and music relates to what I posted, too, about interpreting and discussing dance from a musical perspective. I also use art in my class as students listen to music for the form of a melodic line or the form and arrangement of an entire composition. Students really connect with creativity in this manner! I enjoyed your post.

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