Utilizing Everyday Objects to Teach Abstract Concepts: Take-Aways for Educators that You Can Implement NOW

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Some topics seem hard to teach, given the diverse viewpoints our students hold!  We cannot be timid in giving students skills to work interdependently, reaching across boundaries such as culture through leadership and communication.  You will walk away with simple, economical ideas that captivate learners of all ages and skills!

Extended Abstract

Essential skills for teamwork and collaboration can seem elusive when you are planning to teach them.  Many learners look for concrete and easily accessible answers that don’t vary from one situation to the next. However, fluidity in thinking is the often the required to both understand and utilize abstract concepts. While the review and discussion of case studies and the use of reflective writing are common formats for teaching ideas and skills in interdependence, communication, leadership, and culture, such strategies may not break through the narrow experiences or the defensiveness that some students have learned as coping strategies in this complex environment. Assimilation of concepts and developing both expertise and facility in them, requires a more sophisticated level of critical thinking, unlike many of the binary options of right or wrong that have clarified previous learning.  Students often believe that exposing their uncertainties or even confusion about how to create environments in which they and their team can gain understanding of these kinds of topics leads them to fixed (and frequently inaccurate) solutions rather than dealing with the vulnerabilities of the learning process.  Students must be coached to embrace ideas which may run contrary to the competitive environments they have faced previously where mistakes are misunderstood as incompetence rather than recognized as the possibility of breakthroughs.  To mitigate the impact of this change in the approach to learning, the experiences they face in the classroom must create safety.  It is only in leaning into the discomfort of not knowing that we can gain real knowledge, and for many learners that seems to be too great a risk.

The approach used in Utilizing Everyday Objects to Teach Abstract Concepts: Take-Aways for Educators that You Can Implement NOW challenges students through participation in events and activities that reduce personal risks.  These events tap into simplified activities using everyday items, reducing the threat of making mistakes which may be seen as a reflection of a lack of preparedness or competence.  As long as students anticipate they are to already know answers, they become less receptive to new learning.  Here, in the midst of metaphor-based instruction, students immediately transfer their classroom experience into higher level critical thinking skills, including application, analysis, and synthesis.

This workshop is broken into three activities, each of which invites participation by all team members, and which will ultimately be debriefed following a question-response technique that allows the facilitator to follow the learning of the student.  Each activity is designed to point toward an individual skill or an interrelated cluster of them.  As students gain understanding of elements of each concept, they share them during the debrief, making possible students learning from one another as well as with one another. These learnings transgress the implied boundaries of professions, speaking to a belief in the critical need for students to be prepared to function well in team-based environments.

The activities are designed to be stand-alone, meaning that one could utilize them as single lessons in the context of a broader curriculum.  Otherwise, there is a relationship among the three activities, allowing them to build on one another in terms of sophistication of ideas.  In this workshop, the concepts will be introduced representing their increasing complexity, where skills and insights gained in one activity may help inform the subsequent learning.

In the first learning event, children’s puzzles will be used to demonstrate interdependency.  For a team to be fully interdependent, its members must be aware of not only their own professions/qualifications; they must also understand the contours of their colleagues’ positions.  This means learning about the scope of practice of other team members, learning where and how those interface with their own.  What is the relationship among team members?  If a learner can better understand this facet of their team experience, they can learn to call on and count on other team members.  During times of crisis or when planning out a process, the awareness of team members is essential; it is also at the core of building trust among team members, elevating their performance.  Puzzles represent a metaphor without threatening to reveal some professional shortcoming.  In essence, beyond the education related to their future professions, these co-curricular lessons teach additional, supplemental but essential skills.  Using this metaphor and changing the conditions of the challenge, learners capture insights that they can directly relate to their own skills and their profession.  Application of the metaphor creates personal insight.

Another of the activities will focus on how leadership works in the area of communication. How do leaders who lack feedback or awareness of the real performance of their teams facilitate their ultimate success?  When leadership is based on a top-down, power-over, or even autocratic approach, it can negatively impact team members in terms of engagement and can throw participants into turmoil based on disagreement in understanding.  In this easy exercise that involves both the leader and the learner as partners in communication, breaches of the process can significantly and negatively impede team progress.  What do leaders need in terms of communication with their teams, and what do members need in order to achieve stated goals?  In what ways are those two related?  How can team members as well as leaders take responsibility for communication to be optimized?  Once again, based on a facilitated debrief, insights can be affirmed related to best practices and most effective approaches.

The final element in this trilogy of experiences utilizes a more apparent and concrete gaming format, where it appears initially that the goal is to individually achieve points or counting markers that indicate one’s success in the relatively simple tasks that compose the game play.  The hidden value in this activity is when what has been assumed to be the point of the activity is set aside to debrief what really happened to and among participants.  Although the activity appears have a competitive element, the learning is not in who wins or loses points, but rather about the experience of play as the game progresses and the conditions change.  Rich in both experience and insights, this event utilizes a facilitated debrief to harvest the learning among the participants.

Teaching abstract components of team functioning can be challenging, particularly if one seeks to approach the topics head on through a structured lecture or series of readings. Such approaches keep the consideration of the issues as an intellectual exercise, without revealing nuances of the topic and helping learners integrate what they realize into their knowledge and experience base.  Utilizing this experiential learning format with simple, familiar objects reduces the potential and perhaps inherent risk to the learner that accompanies these topics.  Educators cannot design learning experiences based only on what they want students to learn; the instructional design must take into account the accessibility of the information, presented in such a way that learners can readily assimilate and apply it.

As this workshop comes to a close, participants will discuss with one another ways in which they could apply this approach to other challenging topics they must address.  Tapping into the wisdom and experience of the room, and inviting a creative dialogue that shares potential ideas, participants will depart with additional potential pathways to teaching complex and sometimes abstract concepts in their own learning environments.

As a result of participating fully in this workshop, the learner will be able to:

  1. Identify and employ simple manipulatives to serve as metaphors for more complex concepts.
  2. Experiment and assemble formats for educational events that mitigate participant risks for students while devising salient experiences and facilitated debriefs to unlock learning.
  3. Formulate, share, and then receive additional potential applications for teaching abstract concepts in their discipline/classroom.

For many educators, there is simply nothing more satisfying than experiencing the moment when a learner has a realization of new information they have learned.  Through teaching by metaphor, learners and teachers unwrap the potential for deeper discussions, better insights, and optimized application of the material, removing it from a purely intellectual “what if” learning to a more involved and inclusive “this is what I learned” encounter.