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Teaching and Learning: High Conceptual Thinkers

The Eide Neurolearning Blog run by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, has long been one of my favorite blogs – here’s an example of why:

Gifted Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

High Conceptual Thinkers are often…

– Omnivorous Learners: The world may be their oyster. Because of their quest for the “interesting”, they may love the Internet, read entire encyclopedias, or incessantly question adults about the real world, and so learn a little bit about everything. They may not hit ceiling scores on the conceptual knowledge IQ subtests because their omnivorous approach to figuring out the world around them.

– New is the Thing: HCTs prefer novelty (this is how they develop new conceptual categories) and are tickled by unconventional viewpoints or discoveries.

– Big Picture, Not Little Details: HCTs don’t always transition well to the “precision years” of late elementary, middle school, or beyond.

– Boredom is Death: Although using the ‘b’ word is notoriously a “no-no” word when talking to teachers, these kids rebel against what they see as boredom. Boredom may really seem like death to young HCTs.

If young HCTs seem “driven by a motor”, it’s intellectual restlessness and it can be a blessing as well as a burden.Not surprisingly, these kids often find classroom learning unsatisfying. After all, much of early education is focused on mastering basic skills or established facts, this is not what these kids are about. They’d rather be finding new worlds to conquer.

Although these kids are challenging to teach and parent, they are also a delight, and Dan Pink and others have suggested that the Conceptual Age is upon us and this pattern of thinking should be what we should be encouraging.

“High conceptual thinkers” – those with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, who see meta-level patterns and excel at constructing paradigms, extrapolation, synthesis and consilience are probably not a large percentage of the population and, most likely, they include eccentrics and cranks as well as highly accomplished individuals like E.O. Wilson, Buckminster Fuller, Freeman Dyson, Nikola Tesla, Richard Feynman and probably figures like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Winston Churchill, Robert Hooke, Leonardo Da Vinci and numerous others.There seems to be some congruency between HCTs and the category of people known as polymaths, which raises the question of whether HCT are born or can be encouraged to develop such a cognitive profile from education and life experience.

The Eides offered a list of techniques for teaching children recognized as HCTs, but to my mind, these would also benefit a fairly broad section of students:

Teaching Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

– Sky’s the Limit: If an idea or a lesson would be interesting to a wonky tech-y post-college 20-something, then it’s fine for the HCT. If a story or thing could be written about in Wired, Fast Company, or Mental Floss, then you’re probably on the right track. Sky should be the limit. Even some generally excellent gifted programs we’ve seen may grossly underestimate an HCT’s ability to think about advanced concepts. Also because HCTs develop their ideas through pattern recognition, they may want to see many examples and permutations, and complex presentations in order to help organize their ideas into simpler concepts.

– Play with Ideas: Conceptual thinkers like and need to play with ideas. Play expands ideas, creating a new opening for associations. Play means not micromanaging learning experiences – allowing some dabbling, and taking away some of the “high stakes every time” routine (e.g. not everything should be graded).

– Argue with Ideas We think many educational curricula wait way to long before they allow young HCTs to consider different viewpoints, learn how to frame arguments or actually debate, but this is often what HCTs love. If they don’t get it at school, make sure they get it home…maybe at the dinner table? Half of the 400 eminent men and women profiled in the Goertzels’ Cradles of Eminence came from “opinionated” families: “It is these homes that produce most of the scientists, humanitarians, and reformers.”

Compare these recommendations with the advice offered by nanotechnologist Dr. Eric Drexler of Metamodern:

Studying to learn about everything

To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests – the classroom kind, that is.

  1. Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
  2. Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
  3. Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you – instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
  4. Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
  5. Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
  6. Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about.

Intellectual curiosity would seem to be the axis that would make these approaches work effectively, and possibly, that’s what these techniques stimulate.

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