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Abstract vs concrete

Posted on: March 24, 2020

This week I might focus on some peripheral but important lessons from our reactions COVID-19.

The first is the difference between the abstract and the concrete. This is exemplified by the examples below.

While this might be a lesson on communicating clearly, it is also something I highlight to those who are new to teaching.

A person who teaches (or thinks they can teach) already has a mental schema of a concept. This is an abstraction that is borne of many learning processes, e.g., consumption, discussion, reflection, application, simplification, etc.

When asked to teach that concept, the same person might forget what it takes to learn the concept. They are likely to teach in abstraction because the concept is already clear in their head.

However, this is not the case with learners new to the concept. They need concrete anchors and examples to get to that level of abstraction.

So, for people to internalise “practical social distancing”, they first need specifics like “stay 2 metres away from someone else” first. Other concrete examples like “stay at home” and “reduce your grocery runs to just once a week” become part of the overall concept of social distancing.

This is why I tell my learners, typically future faculty, to start with the concrete in order to get to the abstract. If they start with the abstract, their students will remain lost.

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