Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Abstract Random

Now that 2006 is well under way and Bud has settled into the routine of the spring semester of Kindergarten, I have started obsessing about the thing any thoughtful, caring, neurotic mom obsesses about at this time of year: who will Bud's teacher be next year? I am so delighted with Bud's current teacher that I am maintaining a low level of (I realize, irrational) panic that his educational experience will all be downhill from here. So I've started thinking about what makes Mrs. H such a great fit for Bud, and what qualities I should be seeking in his next teacher.

An off-handed comment Mrs. H made a few weeks ago has gotten me thinking. She was telling me about the teachers' recent professional development day. In one of their workshops, they assessed their own learning styles. The model they used for the assessment is one developed by Anthong F. Gregorc, and my admittedly very limited understanding of it was gleaned from a one-hour workshop that the school principal gave for parents last year. Briefly, the model looks at two key factors: perception and ordering.

There are two types of perception in the model - concrete and abstract - and people usually show a preference for one or the other. Concrete perception is based on the information we take in with the five senses, the things we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. It is the literal, actual, reality of what is right here right now, and people who use it tend to think "It is what it is."

By contrast, abstract perception happens when we take in information by looking for themes and patterns, looking beyond what is actual to imagine the more subtle implications of what is possible, using intuition to form our ideas about what we are experiencing. People who use abstract perception tend to think, "It's not always what it seems."

The model also presents two styles of ordering - sequential and random - and, as with perception, people tend to prefer one over the other.

People who use sequential ordering tend to prefer organizing information in a linear, step-by-step manner, follow a logical progression, and take a traditional approach to problem-solving.

People who prefer random ordering tend to organize information by "chunks" in no particular order. They tend to leap into the middle of the problem they are solving instead of starting at a clearly defined beginning, and they jump around as they work, skipping steps when the step is not needed to get to the goal.

When people assess their preferences and abilities in these two areas, they typically discover that they fall clearly into one of four preferred learning styles:

Concrete Sequential
Abstract Random
Abstract Sequential
Concrete Random

When I did the assessment a year ago, I was not surprised to discover that my learning style is Abstract Random. I have worked a great deal with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and my clear preference for INFP suggests the same sorts of attributes. I was interested to learn, however, that Mrs. H is also Abstract Random. Even more interesting was the fact that so is nearly every member of the team who works so well with Bud.


As I read through the descriptions of each of the learning styles, it seems to me that Bud (and perhaps many others on the spectrum) is uber-Concrete Sequential. Some parts of the description that resonated most (thoughts in parentheses are my own):

What makes sense to them:

  • Working systematically, step by step
  • Paying close attention to details (that are important to him)
  • Having a (visual) schedule to follow
  • Literal interpretations
  • Knowing what's expected of them
  • Routines, established ways of doing things

What's hard for them:

  • Working in groups
  • Discussions that seem to have no specific point (that are of a particular interest to him)
  • Working in an unorganized (overstimulating) environment
  • Following incomplete or unclear directions
  • Working with unpredictable people
  • Dealing with abstract ideas
  • Demands to "use your imagination"
  • Questions with no right or wrong answers

Sound familiar to anyone else?

What is most interesting to me is that although Bud has such a strong (overwhelming?) preference for Concrete Sequential learning, he responds least to the educators and methodologies that are also Concrete Sequential. I suppose it makes sense. If Concrete Sequential educators are concerned with finding and teaching the Right Answers, it would be difficult for them to comprehend - never mind appreciate - the answers that are Not Even Wrong. For most Concrete Sequentials, the "correct" approaches, responses, and products are the conventional ones. But Bud's concrete reality enters his consciousness through a different filter; his sequence is always logical, but it is rarely traditional.

So, as I think about the teachers and classrooms in which Bud will thrive, I realize that he needs to be in an environment in which he is guided, challenged, and supported by Abstract Randoms:

What they do best:

  • Listen to others
  • Understand feelings and emotions
  • Focus on themes and ideas
  • Bring harmony to group situations
  • Establish positive relationships with everybody
  • Recognize and meet the emotional needs of others
What makes sense to them:

  • Personalized learning
  • Broad, general guidelines
  • Maintaining friendly relationships
  • Enthusiastic participation in projects they believe in
  • Decisions made with the heart instead of the head
The primary question they ask while learning: "How can I make a difference?"

It seems to me that it is the Abstract Random teacher who best understands the difference between consistency and sameness; who sees that while Bud needs consistency and predictability, it is the consistency of philosophy and the predictability of relationship, and not the routine of activity or behavior, that will yield success. He can deal with change; in many ways he thrives on change. But he deals with change best when he has an Abstract Random guide who can help shape his understanding of the change and help him to know that even in transition he is safe and life is stable.

Last year Bud had some testing with a wonderful child psychologist. As we were wrapping up, I asked him what I should be looking for in a classroom environment for Bud. He gave me a few concrete suggestions, then paused. "The most important thing," he said, "is that Bud needs to be with people who love him."

I knew that he was right. The teachers, the specialists, the paraprofessionals who are best suited to Bud are the ones who are primarily concerned with making a difference in his life, who believe in him and in the transformative power of education, who can hear the responses he gives that are not even wrong and without hesitation hone in on the parts that are so very right, who try new things and respond and adapt and change, change, change while always maintaining a centered, rooted, immutable Bud-focused philosophy.

Now how do I explain all that to a potential first-grade teacher?


Gemma said...

Can I come and learn in Bud's class? I like the sound of the "Bud Centered" world very much!

You've done a lot of thinking on this, but it seems to boil down to the final paragraph of your post. Does the teacher believe in Bud and all his possibilities? Does he or she see Bud for the amazing individual Bud is, or are they going to want him to conform, regardless of what Bud wants or needs?

Find the answer to that question & I think you will find a teacher (or rule out an inappropriate one)

kristina said...

Abstract Random indeed describes my teaching style---I'm always jumping in in medias res. And Charlie, too, is Concrete Sequential though his chaining of events, behaviors to situations, language to thing, is altogether not "traditional," too. Oddly enough, he learns best when things are "varied and fun"--a teaching style matching his own preferences brings the learning doldrums.

So it seems you've a good profile right in this post for a potential first-grade teacher!

Marta said...

This is very thoughtful and thought-through, it hits so many points, even though I never thought of it in the same terms. Our household is very chaotic, and so is my personality. I'm as non-autistic as you can possibly be: I have a strong routine aversion, for example. I get bored with any activity fast, even the most pleasant ones, if it's not varied. In your terms, I'm very abstract random which caused me a lot of concern as I can't be the structured and concrete parent to my son who needs structure and concreteness. Intuitively though (and I'm big on intuition ;)), I know he's happy with our chaos of a life, and he feels safe with an abstract mom like me. Maybe being exposed daily to a very varied and not very structured environment will make him less sensitive to change and more flexible, maybe that's exactly what he needs :) I'm sorry I'm not as eloquent as you are and can't quite express my thoughts as well as you do, but I hope what I'm writing makes sense. Good thing it's you who's a writer, and I'm just a reader :)