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.
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