Saturday, February 27, 2010

Abstract Thinking Concrete Thinking and the Arts

These are just beginning thoughts and may make sense only to me- oh well, I do welcome comments and questions.

We have a group of professors who routinely think about cognitive theory. On of the results of our thinking is presented in our book "The Unified Learning Model" (or ULM for short). But our conversations continue led by David Brooks who in bouts and spurts pushes our group along. Recently we've been discussing (among other topics) abstract thinking triggered by Elizabeth Spelke comment on Charlie Roses Brain series.

I have been thinking for a while about abstract concepts in relation to vocabulary and started to reject the notion of abstract concepts as concepts that lack objective context- as would for example a chair. Part of this is connected to our work in the arts where a representation of the object helps students realize what the concept is. Of course most of our work happens before students move into what Piaget called the formal operations stage- so my evidence is highly skewed by what I encounter every day.

Initially we tried on definitions for abstract thought. David Moshman noted:
"I've always found the notion of "abstract thought" is too vague to be of much use.  Language is inherently abstract in important ways and the process of learning it is in some ways a process of abstraction, but this is obviously not beyond the capacity of young children.  The same can be said of elementary mathematics, and one of Gelman's basic principles, which all children come to understand, is the abstraction principle.  Piaget defined formal operations as involving hypothetico-deductive reasoning, which involves making deductive inferences to see what logically follows from false or hypothetical statements.  This might be considered an advanced form of abstract thought."

As I challenged the notion of a Formal Operations stage David Moshman who spends his days thinking and writing about this responded:
"Is there really a formal operational stage?  Well, yes and no (that's my definitive answer).
On the yes side, there are indeed advanced forms of reasoning (and associated metalogical conceptions) of the sort identified by Piaget in his work on formal operations that are commonly seen in adolescents and adults but rarely or never seen before the age of 10 or 11.
On the no side, there is no general stage transition from consistent concrete operational reasoning to consistent formal operational reasoning."
So how does this connect to art? In my mind art can be one of the structures on which cognition can lean on as it learns to become abstract. Art can provide a representation that can help us guide students to ask questions that lead to metaphoric thinking a key to following the hypothetical deductive line of thinking. The point that emerges as we consider science, art, and abstract thought was made by Kieth Jacobshagen as he spoke to our class during the summer. He pointed out that what we perceive as a car driving up the road in the dark in nothing but two abstract yellow dots. That is to say all art is abstract and our brains create an image and fill in the gaps to make sense of it. All using concrete knowledge to understand what is an essentially abstract artifact.

So art is an abstract form like language and math and can serve as a bridge to advanced abstract thinking. hmmm maybe we should do more art in school.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Note about Teacher Education Programs

This stems from curriculum action on my campus recently.
The fact that a student took some arts classes in her past, and then went through an elementary education program with no emphasis on the arts education, does make her qualified to teach art in elementary schools. If we are to take ourselves seriously we must make sure that those who are certified get the best instruction and experience that we can give then. Just being an artist does NOT prepare you to teach the arts. We've known this for years about artists in residence. The same holds true for generalist teachers...
That's it just had to get it off my chest as we realign our programs.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Still Snowing

In Nebraska snow is still falling and I am wondering about friendships, projects and relationships. In a word back to our networks that become so established they are an integral part of who we are. As a type I found out that I like working in teams. But that is not enough, I like working in teams over long periods of time figuring out everybody's strengths, contributions. But maybe more than anything it is about growing our thinking together.
When I look at my work I have worked with individuals and schools districts over a long period of time.
With Kathy Wilson I have worked for 12 years now, Nancy and Monique- close to decade, the Nebraska Reading First crew- seven. I like this kind of work. It is close, almost intimate, it allows everyone to be engaged in different ways at different time points. And most of all it has space for growth and change over time. This IS professional development, the kind where everyone develops. In this work we are all participants, researchers, evaluators, teachers, developers.
For example, in my last visit to California (great again), one of the kindergarten teachers approached to talk about assessments. She said (I hope I will not misrepresent here) that she as a teacher had her own way of measuring student growth but last year she stopped and instead relied on our project measurement and was dissappointed to see little growth. She hypothesized that the problem was that our assessment required active vocabulary, students had to show kinds of lines without a directive prompt, she felt (justifiably) that vocabulary acquisition could also be assessed passively by asking student to produce through a prompt, e.g. "can you draw a jagged line?". I agreed that there is merit for that approach and then we followed up a discussion about levels of precision within a study and what to do next. This is a great example of a teacher thinking as a researcher and the researcher/evaluator getting a much better idea about classroom needs and perspectives.
Monique wrote in an email recently "You two [Guy and Nancy] have impacted my thinking about education so much in the last ten years." it is more than I deserve but in reality it is a two way street- Monique has impacted my thinking just as much (if not more).
 The link to art integration is clear- real integration can only emerge from sustained engagement, thinking AND socialization. It is just as much about relationships as it about achievement.