By Kenza Saadi
Abstract thinking is the ability to link objects
or ideas that may not seem related, to see patterns, to deduce. It is an
essential process for creating, learning, and producing knowledge. I like
to use pollination as a metaphor, where one thought leads to another
and another, as knowledge is created in multiple dimensions.
Without it, there would be no art, no poetry, and
no literature. And more than that, there would be no buildings, no bridges,
no cars, nor airplanes, and we would have never flown to the moon. Abstract
thinking is what makes us think beyond ourselves. It is an intrinsic
part of our human character.
In Art and Science
Abstract thinking is as much needed in the arts as
it is in the sciences.
Take Newton’s simple gravity formula: f (force)
= g (gravity constant) x m (mass). From that, he proved that the world
is infinite. And Newton would have never arrived at such a conclusion without
first thinking about it in an abstract manner. His inspiration was religious,
wanting to prove his god’s omnipotence and the endlessness of the heavens,
but that is not the point. The fact is that without abstract thinking, he
could never have arrived at this mathematical conclusion.
Einstein’s formula [E=mc2] negated it, but
that is another story. What is important is that it is also abstract thinking
that led him to the formula. Indeed we all know the famous story about Einstein
imagining a man in a high speed train, and another one on a platform, and
how each perceives the same flash of light at different moments – hence
“relativity.” [I am simplifying of course.]
Just imagine if today students were taught that way:
to imagine things beyond the confines of their books and formulas, and hence
discover for themselves new ways of thinking about scientific facts.
But today, abstract thinking seems to have escaped
many of us and our children. Most education systems are based on the belief
that the younger and the faster a child learns, the smarter he or she shall
be; when we all know that is not the case. There are set curriculums through
which “specialists” determine what a child should learn and at what age.
It makes absolutely no sense.
Think about it for a minute. Why compartmentalize
subjects when new knowledge occurs precisely when the field is open? Who
is to say what a child can and cannot “learn” at a certain age?
For example, if you understand numbers, you can understand
prime numbers (divisible only by one and themselves) no matter the age.
Best yet, if you can count from 1 to 10, you can count to infinity, again
no matter the age; and you can even understand the concept of the “zero,”
in its mathematical and philosophical dimensions. You just need an unbridled
imagination and the freedom to discover.
Worse yet, in most schools, play is considered a
waste of time and is limited in time, when the learning process should be
fun to be effective. Rather than pleasure, schools inculcate competition
at a very young age because “it is a tough world out there” and children
must be ready to face it or they will not survive. [Please note the
sadness of such a statement.]
The Malleable Capacity of the Brain
Abstract thinking enables us to take advantage of
the natural malleable capacity of our brains. And that comes through “play.”
Play means free thinking, since the child or the
adult is absolutely free with regards to what they do, think, move, draw,
write, etc. Play means that all these actions are done for no other purpose
than the actions themselves. The brain is hence freed from the constraints
of obligations and can only operate but naturally.
The main outcome is two-fold:
Knowledge is discovered and processed without
any stress because the experience is joyful; and
Connections between ideas and the generation
of new ideas come naturally, and aplenty, since those ideas are free
to evolve unrestricted.
Within a formal setting, the brain is not given such
freedom. At school for example, things are generally inculcated based on:
Teacher talks / book or experiment shows;
Child learns / memorizes; and
Child recites / takes exams.
Then a complicated system of grades and performance
charts is set up that will rank students, enabling them to move ahead to
another grade, get a university degree, get a job, and so forth.
Aside from the obvious fact that learning becomes
a tedious process, competition rather than the pleasure of learning about
the world becomes the main motivation. And then, those children become adults
with a contrived imagination and the inability to think beyond themselves.
In other words, it is dehumanizing and … boring.
It is imperative that we rethink how children are
educated. We have to open space for play, dreams, and fun. We have to let
their imaginations thrive and enable abstract thinking to soar. It is our
If you have any doubts, just look at the state of
There is war, conflict, hatred, prejudice, discrimination,
rampant corruption, poverty, inequality, depression, unbridled competition,
nationalism, and religious parochialism – and the list goes on. Despite
our technological prowess, humankind is still incapable of loving and sharing
beyond our little circle. Everyone talks about compassion and feeling sorry
for the victims of war or an abandoned dog. True. But what are we doing
about it? How can we possibly change the world if our children continue
to be taught through restrictive systems where free thought is denied, where
memorization and competition are the norm, and where structure and regulation
are the guiding principles?
It is a “tough world out there” so many
people tell me, so why don’t we all think about ways of changing it so that
our children and future generations can have a world that is not “tough,”
and where humanity is valued through joy rather than competition and division?
I believe that enabling children to think freely,
and creating the conditions for their innate ability to learn and discover
to soar are some of the steps we may take in that direction. It is easy,
really. As adults, we should just step back and let them do so. Only goodness
can come of it. Only goodness.
Kenza Saadi holds a BA from Cornell University
and a PhD from Columbia University. She has spent ten years working for
the International Committee of the Red Cross in war zones. An accomplished
photographer and author of various biographical accounts and poems, she
now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with her seven-year-old son
who is learning from life with joy. Her photography website is
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