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Unschooling Helps Kids Develop Abstract Thinking Skills

Abstract Thinking
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.]

Schools Today

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:

  1. Knowledge is discovered and processed without any stress because the experience is joyful; and

  2. 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:

  1. Teacher talks / book or experiment shows;

  2. Child learns / memorizes; and

  3. 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.

Our Responsibility

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 responsibility.

If you have any doubts, just look at the state of the world.

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 CaramelCaramelo.

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