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River of abstractions.

"USE THE ABSTRACTING PROCESS," I instruct the class, "to explain how I can spot a student doodling and only pretending to take notes." "Map-makers," they inform me, "select information from the environment based on the context of the situation, their state of mind, and their evaluation of what seems most important." I like this explanation, because it shows that they HAVE taken notes, and because it identifies some critical elements of abstracting. To take them deeper into the process, I ask them to enter a "river" of abstractions.

I give them one minute to map the territory of the classroom. They must use their senses to pay attention to the stimuli around them. After exactly sixty seconds of "quiet," they report what they noticed.

"I heard the clock humming."

"I could taste the coffee I had for breakfast -- ugh!"

"I noticed that Jen had her hair cut."

Other students comment on the light streaming through the windows, the colors in the curtains, the feel of the chairs, and the sounds of the heating system. One student swears she heard the Marine Hymn whistled in the hallway.

"So, why hadn't you abstracted this information before?" One of my brightest says that she chose to pay attention to me and thus neglected the other stimuli. The wise class nods in agreement.

"Does this mean you COULD have abstracted all of these other pieces of information, but chose not to?" No. Position in the room influenced what they abstracted. Those in the back did not hear the clock. Only Paula could abstract the coffee taste in her mouth, though someone close to her might have smelled her breath. Timing played a factor. The whistling lasted only a few seconds and then disappeared. If you hadn't noticed Jen's hair before, you wouldn't have detected a change today. I point out that no one used x-ray vision to see another's bones, nor heard the sound of cells splitting.

"If I had given you more than a minute, would you have abstracted more?" Yes. But they admit that the map would always have missing information.

To complete the exercise, I relate the process of abstracting to standing in a river. Depending upon where you stand, you glimpse different objects in the river. Near the shore you can observe small fish, weeds, trees, insects, snails, a pop can. Move toward the middle and you might feel, but not see, objects rushing past you. If you peer closer, you may spot the fish, but miss the dragonfly hovering over your head. Turn one way and you hear the wind, turn the other and you hear bird song. However, if you want to land a trout, you will ignore the birds and concentrate on the current.

As map-makers, I tell my class, we stand in a river of abstractions. Depending upon our interests, our skills, our purpose, and a whole host of other variables, we select, ignore, and miss information from that river.

"Use the 'river' analogy," I instruct, "to explain how I can spot a doodling student among the active learners." The doodlers doze by the side of the river, while the learners jump right in.
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Title Annotation:Education; comparing the process of abstracting to standing in a river
Author:Johnson, Andrea
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1993
Words:528
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