A case for abstract thinking

Today I was asked what people think of me and I responded with the most common feedback I gain from students. “At the time I did not realize I was learning anything; it was just fun. Now I recognize how much you have taught me.”

Now I love this feedback but I realize that it does not always work in my favor. So here is an example of when it can.

While teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) I was asked to instruct a “Canyon Orientation” class. To be honest I knew nothing about the natural history of canyon country, neither did I like it. A place filled with as many hard, sharp and biting things as that filled me with fear and probably loathing. Thankfully the class took the form of two three day weekends and some evenings. I meditated on what to do and drew a complete blank until I read the Map That Changed The World by Simon Winchester.

It became glaringly obvious how to create something from nothing. On arrival in the canyon I spread the group out and asked them to sit alone for 20 minutes. I wanted them to be aware of their surroundings – I asked them to be silent, to listen, feel, smell and look. They were to come back and describe some of the things that they sensed and then to describe some of the feelings that they had.

It was enlightening, most of them were initially as frightened as me and yet as they surrendered to the place, they warmed to it – something I could understand.

Then I told them the story of William Smith; the father of modern geology. How there was no names for rocks, no categorization and no recognition of patterns until he came on the scene. How through working in mines and canals he had seen repeating layers of rocks and how he had mapped these layers. I then asked them to walk through a canyon imagine that they were William Smith and look for patterns. Firstly alone for 15 minutes, then with a partner, with whom they would share their initial observations and then develop some ideas further. Then they walked in groups of four, again sharing what they saw and perhaps why it might be that way.

Finally I set them off alone again to come up with a few compelling questions – if they had access to expertise what would they want to ask them. We then came together to share all we had seen and thought. We decided on a list of questions that we really wanted to know the answers to and then split them up, so everyone had something to research. We followed the same pattern with other subjects; based on their observations and experiences what did they want to know?

During the following week they researched and then at the weekend they came back armed with answers.

It was one of the more productive classes I taught at CMC, not merely because the students defined their own learning and it was greater than if I had done so, the additional reality was that they changed perceptions of place. Something that had appeared barren and hostile became alive and inviting. This to me is good education and highlights how clarity is often more impressive when it develops from something opaque.

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