Anchoring the Abstract

One of the things I’ve found students find difficult about subjects like Sociology is the frequently abstract nature of the ideas they’re being asked to understand and apply. Ideas that range from the relatively simple (socialisation, identity, culture…) to the not-quite-so-simple (positivism, postmodernism, methodology…) and the downright difficult (risk society, hegemony, autopoiesis …)

Creating Curiosity…

And since grasping as wide range of key concepts as possible is pretty much central to doing well in the subject, it follows that anything students and teachers can do to make this material more accessible is going to be beneficial for everyone. The problem, as you probably know, is how to achieve this desirable goal?

One way to do this is by anchoring the abstract in the concrete.

In other words, by using concrete examples to illustrate things that are, by their very nature, somewhat intangible. An added bonus of this process is that it encourages students to develop a sense of curiosity through their ability to both explore the abstract and tie it down to something more tangible. And as you’ll probably be aware (or maybe not) we’ve previously posted about curiosity and how to create it as part of a general metacognition thing we’ve been developing in our recent films.

The basic idea here is that by anchoring abstract ideas in something substantial – and substantive – it makes it easier for students to understand, remember and apply them as and when necessary. And the way to achieve this is to connect abstract ideas to the individual through three types of filter: previous knowledge, personal life and wider social life.

In describing how these filters work, they can be used by individual students working alone or by teachers in the classroom. The only real difference is that if you’re a teacher you’ll need to build certain time restrictions into the process, such as limiting the time your students have to think about the three categories I’ve just listed or by getting them to think about each category in their own time (as part of a homework assignment or flipped teaching session, for example).

Previous knowledge

The first connection to make is between what’s just been taught in the classroom and information that’s been previously taught. How, in other words, do the things you’ve just been taught connect with stuff you already know?

While there are no limits to the connections that can be made across the curriculum, you need to be able to clearly explain how the new material connects to the old in order to cement it in your memory.

The objective here is to both consolidate previously learnt material, by retrieving it, and to extend your general understanding of a topic by linking the new to the old. This technique also helps you develop a sense of curiosity about the things being studied and, by so doing, generate new learning through the connections you’re able to make.

Personal Life

The next type of connection involves linking the things taught in the classroom to your own life and experiences. How, in other words, can you apply the things you’ve just been taught to your personal life?

Using personal examples in this way makes the information you’ve just been taught more immediate, concrete, relevant and memorable. In addition to providing a source of simple and effective application, an added bonus here is that this process helps to bring ideas to life when we recognise how they relate to our own ideas and experiences.

The process of connecting the academic to the personal is also a useful way to generate curiosity and, by extension, greater interest in the things being taught. This greater interest, in turn, tends to make this information more memorable.

Wider society

Similar to relating the things we’ve been taught to our personal lives, Sociology lends itself well to creating concrete links to wider society. How, for example, can something you’ve just learnt in the classroom be applied to events – past, present and possibly future – in the real world?

If this exercise is something you’re doing in the classroom with a group of students this section lends itself particularly well to broader discussions about what’s just been taught and how it relates to people’s lives.

Finally, while you don’t have to think about abstract ideas in terms of each of the three listed categories you’ll find it really useful to get into the habit of doing just that.

And if you can develop good studying habits you’re well on the way to achieving success in Sociology (and any other subject you happen to be studying).

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