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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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College Readiness: How to Help Students Think Abstractly

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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?

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Barbaree Ash Duke's picture
Barbaree Ash Duke
Teacher & Educational Consultant in English, GIS, Technology and Geography

I love your examples and second the notion. This post makes an excellent point about TEACHING thinking. It's so important that we don't just expect our students to think when we give them "critical thinking assignments." I have used this method mentioned along with integrating geography, GIS and mapping analysis to help teach thinking in English class while showing students connections literature has with other subjects. Students are opened to more opportunities when we teach them to connect and think! Get outside the box!

Deirdre Burke's picture
Deirdre Burke
Retired Administrator

Metaphor: A figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common.

Lewis Carroll

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

I thoroughly agree with your endorsement of abstract thought as an indicator of college readiness. What I describe here may be a little different, but I hope it is worth sharing.

In my middle school Orchestra classes, students maintain a Practice Journal. Along with their practice record for the month, students each month must enter a reflection on a pre-selected photo (that I give them) of an Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe performance. We discuss and share the musical/visual metaphors that the photo might represent. It is exciting to hear my young instrumental students relate the power seen a dancer's high leap with a"forte" (means "loud") in music, or with the musical interval between 2 notes. One of the most motivational aspects of the assignment is that they know that my grading of this does not judge the content, as long as it meets the requirement of a minimum of 3 coherent sentences. As the year has progressed, many students have shown improvement in their metaphoric thinking and their grammatical understanding of what constitutes a complete sentence.

There has been an immediate byproduct has been the effect of their deeper thinking as it relates to their own performance musically. They are grasping that they must convey various feelings, sensory events, colors in their playing of the notes. In describing how to feel/play the final note in an orchestral piece called "Snowflake," several of the students came to this description: the last note has to be quiet, like the way that last snowflake comes to rest on new-fallen snow." I could have cried.. and they played it just that tenderly, to the delight of their audience!

Katherine Patrick's picture
Katherine Patrick
9-12 English/journalism teacher

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

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

I agree. I am wondering if some, like me, were responding to the original question, which was, " How do you get your students to think abstractly?" Interesting interchanges all around.

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

Rhonda:

The whole point of meta-cognition is to model thinking patterns that can be emulated by the student so that eventually, those patterns of thought will be habitual or habits of mind. I did see improvement, but even if they did not arrive at a clear understanding of the underlying principle, they were aware that there are underlying lessons to be learned. Once that door is opened, it invites understanding of a wide range of literary and scholarly devices commonly used that enrich our thinking and enliven our perceptions. Train a child when he is young in the way he should go and when he is old...

Thanks for the post!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Ben, Your skillful questioning unlocks the deeper meaning below the literal level. Do you find students are able to maintain their ability to understand metaphors when they don't have the benefit of your questions to guide their thinking when they are reading independently?[/quote]

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

Scott:

Creative thinking requires a different "Turn of Phrase" that makes you look twice, and think twice. Chair up, and hold your nose are prime examples of this. The enhanced messages in the new twist on old phrases cannot be missed either. This is the basis of a lot of humor and wisdom. People like Jay Leno make their living doing just this. Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Half the fun of learning and teaching is to crisscross bridges from the concrete to the abstract and back. We do it all the time. For example, in my latest post I share the way I physically float papers to students as a way to get them to consider the abstract concept of, "Think before you speak." Students delight in figuring out and learning metaphors such as, "The rub is...." Puns, too, help students think. (Of course, all my students know that the arguable reason cows have bells around their necks is because their horns don't work.) Also, morphing common sayings such as, "Speak now, or forever hold you nose," and at the end of the day announcing to the class, "Chair up! Be happy!" are ways to play with images through words. Metaphors, puns, and saying surprising, catchy statements keep students on their mental toes and engaged with the notion of, " What will happen next?"[/quote]

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

Gretta:

I am sure that you will probably agree that the skills and talents gained in learning the arts, especially the musical arts transfer directly to academic coursework. A student able to grasp the concept that just playing a note does not communicate a message completely; how it is played is crucial to complete communication of the message. I couldn't help imagining the normally loud trombone players playing a note as soft as a snowflake falling. Truly a tender moment! Music is abstraction at it's highest level-- telling a story with no words.

Thanks for the post!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I thoroughly agree with your endorsement of abstract thought as an indicator of college readiness. What I describe here may be a little different, but I hope it is worth sharing.

In my middle school Orchestra classes, students maintain a Practice Journal. Along with their practice record for the month, students each month must enter a reflection on a pre-selected photo (that I give them) of an Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe performance. We discuss and share the musical/visual metaphors that the photo might represent. It is exciting to hear my young instrumental students relate the power seen a dancer's high leap with a"forte" (means "loud") in music, or with the musical interval between 2 notes. One of the most motivational aspects of the assignment is that they know that my grading of this does not judge the content, as long as it meets the requirement of a minimum of 3 coherent sentences. As the year has progressed, many students have shown improvement in their metaphoric thinking and their grammatical understanding of what constitutes a complete sentence.

There has been an immediate byproduct has been the effect of their deeper thinking as it relates to their own performance musically. They are grasping that they must convey various feelings, sensory events, colors in their playing of the notes. In describing how to feel/play the final note in an orchestral piece called "Snowflake," several of the students came to this description: the last note has to be quiet, like the way that last snowflake comes to rest on new-fallen snow." I could have cried.. and they played it just that tenderly, to the delight of their audience![/quote]

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

Deirdre:

I think the more unlike the things are, the more powerful the message, I remember something about pigs and lipstick... It takes abstract thinking to put those two together, and when you do, you can't help but smile a bit because of the visual imagery. Thanks for the added perspective from someone who was a master at metaphor and personification, Lewis Carrol. More modernly we might call his creation the Jaberwookie which brings in a whole new culture and meaning (Grin).

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Metaphor: A figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common.

Lewis Carroll[/quote]

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