There are many different definitions of abstraction across various content areas. Let’s focus on abstraction from a computer science lens. A simplified definition of abstraction would be a problem-solving tool that helps by removing the parts that do not aid in solving the problem. In other words, it’s when we look at the relevant and essential details only. It’s important to recognize that abstraction is all around us. We use it daily, and it becomes easy to see when someone points it out to us. The difficulty lies in intentionally creating abstractions.
In a classroom, you will see abstraction being used daily in mathematics, literacy, science, and other subjects. That said, if you were to ask students how they are using abstraction to help them, you may be greeted with a fair share of blank stares. In mathematics, students who are solving word problems have to abstract out the information that they really need in order to solve the problem. For example, students might circle key words and numbers and ignore the other information that isn’t pertinent to the solution. During writing, students who are writing a personal narrative about a moment of time in their lives abstract out a single moment, and then zoom in to add details. All the other memories and moments in their lives aren’t needed. For a science project, a group of students who have to empathize with their friend in a wheelchair and design a playground must zoom into the needs of their friend and look from a very specific lens, and then apply those abstractions to their design. Abstraction can mean zooming out, too. For example, students can categorize the book that they are reading as realistic fiction, or they can classify a whale as a type of mammal. It is the idea of abstracting a selection into a single idea.
How do we help students notice that they are in fact using abstraction? We start with something simple. Have students pick their favorite part of the classroom and write about just that one spot. Have everyone share and then engage in a sensemaking conversation around abstraction. How is it that we’re all in the same room, and yet, if we read each other’s papers, they’re all different? How does zooming in and leaving other things out allow us to discover new things about our classroom? After the activity, you could introduce the term abstraction, review its definition, and then make connections for students to the experience in which they just engaged.
To help your students continue to develop an understanding and the ability to create abstractions, continue to engage them in several more abstraction activities. One idea might be to start by dividing your class into groups of five. Pick fruits—such as an apple, orange, banana, and strawberry—and assign one fruit to each group. Within the groups, assign each student one of the five senses: touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste. Each student in the group has to write a paragraph describing the fruit. The restriction is that whichever sense they are assigned is the only sense they can use to describe the fruit. Then students can then share their description with the group. Students engage in creating their own abstraction of the fruit. Groups can engage in more sensemaking conversations around what abstraction has allowed them to discover about the fruit they were focusing on together. A similar activity could be done with maps. Everyone in the group could be assigned the same area, but each member could either create or look at a different type of map—such as road, topographical, thematic, and cadastral—and then share all the different things that can be discovered about an area through abstraction. Again, something similar could be done in a game like Minecraft. How might a player abstract, focus on a specific build, and then put things back together to make an awesome biome?
Students can also use concept mapping to help them learn about abstraction. When concept mapping, students need to categorize. Students take an object or idea and then build out concepts. For example, students could start with a favorite book. If starting with Harry Potter, they might build categories like “fantasy,” “magic,” and “hero’s journey.” Those categories could be further built out to include categories like “wands” or “charms.” Concept maps can be created in analog form or digitally, using sites such as Miro, MindMup, MindMeister, Canva, or Popplet.
Making students aware of what abstraction is and how it can be used to solve problems helps create better problem-solvers. It can also enable students to look at and see the world through another lens. It gives students permission to realize that you don’t have to know everything about how something works in order to solve the problem. For example, students who may not know their basic math facts can still engage in deep and thoughtful problem-solving with the aid of a calculator. Students don’t need to know how the developers at Google programmed and created Google Sites in order for them to create a dazzling site themselves.
Great programmers take something complex and figure out a simple way to work with it and allow others to work with it. Think about all the “simple” apps that we use in our everyday lives. Identifying and using abstraction in core content areas is great, but it’s important to connect abstraction to computing for students. One way to do this is to start with things familiar to them or that they use every day—perhaps a video game or a popular application, like Google Docs. Ask students if they know how Google Docs works. How many of them understand the code and program that runs Google Docs? Why don’t they need to know the programming intricacies in order to create something within Google Docs? To make clearer connections, have students engage in creating programs of their own within Scratch or ScratchJr, and once again, ask them whether they know how the program works or if they understand the code that runs the program. You could even have them engage with a starter project and only focus on changing one part.
Abstraction allows students to sort through information and abstract out what is necessary in order to solve a problem. If we teach students how to abstract starting in kindergarten, then as they engage in more and more complex problems with intricate information, students will have the necessary skills to sort through all of the information, abstract what they need, and solve the problem. As Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein point out in their book, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, “…reality is the sum of all possible abstractions and that in coming to know these possibilities, we understand reality better” (p. 81). Let’s help our students better understand their reality and be skilled problem-solvers through abstraction.
- Root-Bernstein, R., & Root-Bernstein, M. (2001). Sparks of genius: The 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Mariner Books.
Extend Your Learning
- Early Learning Strategies for Developing Computational Thinking Skills (Getting Smart)
- Building Abstract Thinking Through Math (Scholastic)
- Abstraction With Mad Glibs: Unplugged Lesson (Code.org)
- How to Develop Computational Thinkers (ISTE)