Sunday, January 08, 2017

concrete and abstract...

It is fascinating that children even at an early age, have the ability to use metaphor and yet not understand metaphor when it is used by others. To do that requires a foundation for language that's found in an ever expanding realm of doing real things. In other words, the abstract must rest on a concrete foundation.

I have written on this subject many times before, and this is one example.

There are all kinds of classic examples of children using words metaphorically to express things they are not yet equipped to express otherwise. For example, my daughter Lucy  at two years old would say "got some," in place of the less meaningful words, "thank you." To say "got some" acknowledged the receipt of something from others. We would try to encourage her to say thank you, but her response was  still consistently "got some," which to her meant the same thing.  Those words would not be immediately recognized even by adults as meaning the same thing as "thank you."  I think you can understand that the word "got" is less abstract than the word, "thank," and children will use words from their concrete experience in place of abstractions thus making up their own abstract concepts when necessary to communicate. In essence,  even adults rarely fully understand metaphor created by others unless they are prepared for that understanding by experience and reflection.

The key, I think, to building the capacity to use and understand metaphor comes from being engaged in reality, not estranged from it, as is the case for too many children in too many schools.

On Wednesday last week, one of my first grade students wanted to make a house. Did it matter that it had no walls? She came up with the way in which it would be built, using her  own imagination. She took slender dowels to form the upright structure and then asked for help on the drill press to drill holes in thin stock that she selected to form the ceiling and floor.

Then it needed to be furnished. It is a house. Could you tell it is one? The three legged stool, which she designed and made would offer a clue, as would her self-portrait in the form of a block of wood with smiling face sitting on the stool. Now all my other students, even some in high school, want to make tiny houses. Is it something in the air?

Some have also wondered how do you teach something as abstract as literature or history, hands-on. To them I raise the question, how do you effectively teach those subjects without some foundation in reality and real experience and what better way is there to attain that than to engage students hands-on?

Years ago I had an interesting conversation with my old friend Donald Harington, author of countless wonderful novels about Arkansas and long time professor of Art History at the U of A. He urged me to observe the number of metaphors used in his book that made reference to tools and woodworking.

Woodworking must have been one of his favorite subjects at least in life if not in schooling.

Make, fix, create, and allow others to love learning likewise.

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