The HeadScratcher Post Archive
April  2013
Abstract Thinking
       April 2013 The Headscratcher Post Headscratchers LLC    Edition 90

Learn more about our on-site, customized, Critical Thinking Workshops

Abstract Thinking and 3 steps to get there.

A long time ago, while in a high school physics class, a classmate turned to me and said, "I get 100% on the tests because I know what formula to use on what problem, but I don't really understand why ". This classmate memorized when to use what rule, but was lost when given a new kind of problem. Another classmate however understood what the formulas meant, and was able to apply this understanding to any problem.

In the business world, there are problems we face when the "If this happens do this" rule works well. However, there are many problems that, while similar, are different enough to warrant some thinking. This is when those who have learned how to be abstract thinkers thrive.

Abstract Thinking - The ability to take the collective learning from individual instances, understand the similarities, differences and meaning of the relationships, and apply that learning to new instances resulting in solutions.

Abstract Thinking is important. Abstract Thinkers can figure out the relationship between former problems and solutions and apply those relationships when encountering new problems to form new solutions.

We informally learn abstract thinking as we grow up by watching and comparing multiple similar situations. For many, formal abstract thinking is first encountered in math, when introduced to "X" in algebra class. For example; the nomenclature 4 times X =, where X can represent any number.

When helping people learn how to apply what they know to new situations, you are essentially teaching them how to abstract what they know and apply it to situations that are new. Some people can pick up the abstract concept right away, others take a little longer. We use 3 steps to help people understand the abstract.

  1. Show specific examples, of problem and solution. Explain why. Show at least three of these that are related, and represent the same problem-solution set.
  2. The next step, and very important, is to ask if they want to learn how to apply the concepts of those examples to other situations. You have be ready to learn the abstract in order to learn the abstract. This is a conscious change of view. Once people understand that the conversation is shifting to a more general case, they are ready to learn the abstract. They won't learn the abstract if they are focused on a specific instance and are stressed about solving a particular problem.
  3. Now, point out the relationship between specific cases and a general situation or problem. Abstract learning has begun.

Of course it takes longer than 1,2,3 shazam, and the abstract is learned. However, it is important to recognize that learning the abstract requires a shift in perspective from solving a specific problem to learning a skill.

The Takeaway. Abstract Thinking is what we hope everyone can become really good at. With this skill you can solve new problems using the learning from past problems, even though they are different. Teaching abstract thinking takes multiple specific examples, a clear explanation of how they are related, a conscious shift of focus, from a particular problem to a more general rule and/or concept, and patience in the process.

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