203. Abstract and Concrete

Piaget worked hard to learn about children’s learning, and though I try to avoid worshipping people, Piaget is high up there on my list. But today I found myself taking another look at a dichotomy he’d analyzed. I’d read The Origin of Intelligence in Children, and Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. I’d considered Piaget’s ideas sacrosanct throughout my teaching career – the separation of the abstract and the concrete, and children’s difficulties thinking abstractly before they reach the right stage.
It’s not that my actual teaching always reflected my understanding and acceptance of Piaget’s wisdom; sometimes I got too abstract for some children. I was so impressed with some children’s comfort with and enjoyment of abstract thinking that I sometimes taught to them and left other children wondering what was going on. Sorry about that.
But children’s wisdom can catch you unaware. Yesterday, for example, I was reading a fable a seven-year-old child had written. It was about a monkey who captured a butterfly. The monkey punched holes in the butterfly’s cage, so that it could breathe, and later on, found that the butterfly had escaped through one of the holes. The moral of the story was “Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you.” Several other children had written fables, with morals that were less surprising than this one.
Perhaps I’ve read into the story some depth that hadn’t occurred to the author; some adults who spend time with children have a tendency to add meaning to children’s words, and I’m not immune to the tendency. For now, though, I’ll allow myself to believe that this second-grader had taken a step beyond the literal and the concrete. The way I interpret her story, it was about the futility of attempts to capture beauty, or the right of all creatures to live their lives in freedom. To me, this was not just about a monkey and a butterfly. It was an allegory, with a message for any humans who took the time to look.
As much as I appreciate this one story and this one author, I don’t think it’s as unusual as some people may think. I’ve seen and heard many children who have looked and sounded precocious, and I believe that there’s wisdom hiding in every person, young or old. It may be an oversimplification to say that children under a certain age are incapable of abstract thought. Instead of trying to rely on inviolable rules about children’s learning, let’s look at and listen to each child. Maybe, for many children, we don’t have to draw such a thick line between the abstract and the concrete.

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