The Skills of Abstraction and Specification

Each one of us has been taught to brush our teeth at a very young age. Now we might have been taught to do so using a green brush or a blue brush (or a brush of some other colour). Today if we were given a brush of a different colour that doesn’t mean we would struggle to brush with it. Although the example seems ludicrous, there is a principle at work here.

What we are doing is abstracting the principle of brushing and generalizing it. This is when we remove the principle from its specific context so that it can be applied to any context. We often generalize and abstract various principles that we come across. Children might be taught to add 2 apples with 3 apples in Math class. They then abstract the principle (remove the context of apples) and apply the skill for determining the cost of the bill at the supermarket (totally different context). Or they might be taught to read using a Peter Pan story. However, they then abstract the principles and then apply them while reading a newspaper.

Another similar skill is that of specification. This is the other side of the coin, so to speak. It is the ability to take abstract principles and apply them to the specific instance. Knowing the skill of division is good. But then one needs to know that it would be appropriate to use such a skill while distributing chocolates to a large number of students. Determining how many chocolates each student gets becomes a lot easier if one divides the number of chocolates by the number of people present.

Although these skills are so natural to the most of us, it is surprising how often we do not apply them as we grow older. For instance I recently learnt about the theory of multiple intelligences as proposed by Howard Gardner. But I was at a loss wondering how this could be applied to a classroom scenario. Although I can understand the principle on some level, I wasn’t able to apply it to a specific lesson plan. The Teaching for Understanding project by the Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education talk about this and say that creativity and invention are required to be able to apply general guidelines into specific teaching contexts.

As I’ve written before, however, one shouldn’t wait for some mystical skill of creativity to be taught us. The action item to take back from these insights is to practice and work hard. Deep knowledge leads to increased creativity. Spending more time reading about the theory, reading about ways in which other teachers are implementing the theory in their own classrooms, writing down my ideas and putting them into practice, and then learning from the feedback – these are all some of the ways that I can improve my own inventiveness at applying general principles to specific contexts.

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