Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking

In the young adult novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Ivan, a silverback gorilla struggles to draw anything but what he sees.  He can’t visualize or draw imaginable scenes.  He draws what’s right in front of him.  He is a concrete thinker.  I on the other hand tend to have difficulty seeing the concrete.  I’m all about the creative and abstract.  I’d much rather write a fiction story than a personal narrative.  I think big rather than realistically.  I’m an abstract thinker.  While Ivan and I are polar opposites when it comes to thinking, we both feel that, sometimes, you just need to throw a me-ball.

The struggle for me as a teacher is to help my sixth graders bridge the gap from the concrete to the abstract.  How do I help them see what isn’t there? How do I help bring them from the elementary level to the middle?  I’ve tried many things already to help prepare them for the big ideas they will see in the seventh grade.  We’ve transitioned our current events discussions so that the focus is on more mature, serious news stories that will greatly impact our students and the world in which they live.  This was a challenge for some of them.  They felt like these ideas were too adult.  We’ve also started to switch the focus in our reading groups so that we are talking more about the author’s purpose and the motivation of the characters.  This is a difficult task for a few students as they are still so focused on plot and characters still.  However, they need to step it up to be ready to make inferences, draw conclusions, make connections, and see what isn’t there.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on researching a self-chosen tribe that once called NH home.  The boys needed to find information to answer a set of guiding questions.  They were limited to three sources: Print books from our school library, EBSCO Host, and World Book Online.  They know how to access and use all three source types.  Most of the information they found was very basic and broad whereas the questions were asking for more specific answers.  Some of the students struggled to understand how to use the information we provided to them in an introductory lessons on Wednesday as a springboard to further research in order to answer the guiding questions.  Instead of recalling the fact that most Abenaki tribes lived in wigwams that were made of birch bark and trees, they continued looking for what natural resources the tribes used.  Had they the ability to think abstractly, they would have had an easy example without much researching at all.  We needed to spoon feed this information to some of our concrete thinkers.  Now, here’s the real perplexer, these are the same students that can solve complicated math problems and equations.  Riddle me that Batman.  How is that possible?  If they can think abstractly when it applies to math, why are they not able to think creatively with regards to research and history?  How do we help our students learn to see beyond themselves?  Could I be doing anything differently to help my students think more abstractly?  Is it developmental?  Will they be fine next year in the seventh grade because their brains will evolve over the summer?  Am I best supporting my students to move from the concrete to the abstract?


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