Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Thursday, November 03, 2005
"Making it real" doesn't always help. This post from Joanne Jacobs links to a report in Science Daily that says students were
"more successful in applying what they learned to new situations when they were taught with abstract symbols rather than concrete objects." In one of the experiments the subjects "were separated into four groups, each of which learned from a different set of symbols, from very abstract and simple to intricate photos of real objects. In general, even though the learned material was otherwise identical, students who used the most intricate, concrete symbols did poorer on testing than those who learned using the most simple, abstract symbols."

The report suggests that the almost instinctive educational practice of helping children understand by making the abstract more concrete or "human" might not be such a good idea after all. However one of Joanne's commenters makes the good point that the subjects for the experiment were college students, and things might be different for young children.

Yet I must say that as soon as I saw Joanne's headline, it seemed intuitively convincing (with caveats, including the distinction between younger and older learners). The whole usefulness of numbers comes from their being abstract. We are intrigued by but do not envy the pointillist vision of the man described in Borges' Funes the Memorious.

In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.

Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name; Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.