Abstracting For Kids

Rumor has it that kids don’t grasp abstract thought until they’re older. At a young age, the ability to do so is supposed to be undeveloped.

Grown-ups who are supposed to be capable of abstraction also seem to have trouble recognizing it is happening too. Trot out abstract art, for instance; many adults haven’t a clue how to decipher the intent of an abstract artist. Some of the secret questions to answer when looking at art is to imagine,”Why would someone do this?” “What state would a person need to maintain to do this?” But these questions are missing for most adults because they have been trained in school to answer questions and not formulate them.

But there’s another reason people aren’t commonly able to perceive abstract means. They get dazzled by “valuable” content. They’re so fixed on the content of what happened when they were experimenting or thinking creatively that they lightly skip over any awareness of what they did to get what they wanted. One of the most common questions students wonder about after an Alexander Technique teacher gives them a hands-on guided modeling turn is, “How did you do that to me?”

Meet my two young students. They are sisters, eight and ten years old. Their parents and Hula teacher want them to learn better posture. As their teacher, I imagined that the grammatical structure of language that mostly every kid masters before age three or four has got to be abstract enough to certify them being able to do so. These two kids double qualify as great students because they also speak Japanese flawlessly.

Imagine these kids to be sort of like an Artificial Intelligence that don’t have enough context to abstract yet. As their teacher, I have to figure out what that experience is and provide it for them. Abstract (in our case of learning Alexander Technique) means the underlying process, principles or events that are supposed to be inside the process of how the wanted result happened. They can’t use what I teach them unless they understand how to apply it. 

So – what is the most important first-hand experience that these kids might be missing that I would commonly assume every adult already has?

I thought back to my stepson playing on a swing at four years old, discovering an amazing twist and whirl. Then when he got his dad’s attention, he was so disappointed that he couldn’t repeat his previous success for his dad to see him doing. Then I realized something: Kids only have trial and error to train themselves to learn something physical, and the likelihood of repeating a new success is tiny. No wonder learning a physical trick is so frustrating next to pushing buttons on a video game!

So that meant I first had to teach these kids how to train themselves.

For kids, (for all of us, really) any missing link of abstraction can be taught through storytelling. Kids need a context, and these contexts need to be built by example or illustration in ways they can identify with the characters in a story. In order to imagine a motive, you must be able to put yourself in a situation where that motive makes sense. If people are going to read minds and use what the brain science people call “mirror neurons,” they need some familiarity with situations that people experience. So how could I orchestrate a context for learning how to train?

I had one kid pretend they were a very smart animal and the other kid was the trainer. They used a clap for signaling successes – no talking. We had great fun training each other to do odd things. The kids also learned how to be clear, kind to themselves and use the important elements of training such as taking care with timing to reinforce the right behavior, preventing the animal from learning the wrong things and celebrating successes. Now when learning new skills, they understood that they were both the animal and the trainer. (Thanks to Karen Pryor.)

Then we went through, very fast, activities that were complex: juggling, learning dance steps for Hula class, singing, playing the piano and doing gymnastic moves at a super-fast rate. They learned key concepts of improving their coordination that Alexander Technique has to offer for their ability to move freely. Because of having played the Training Game, they could perceive how what they had learned about training themselves could be used in many different situations.

These two girls didn’t have any problem learning abstract concepts in only eight lessons.  AND – it was great fun for them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stories Show Need

For decades of my life I have specialized in adopting rather unpopular and sometimes “outdated” as well as completely new “cutting edge” ideas about ways of doing things. The value that attracts me has been that well-placed effort has a greater benefit and it is of greater benefit than a massive amount of misdirected effort. Less of doing what a person does not want will creatively provide a person with more of what they do want – as an effortless byproduct. This is especially true when small tendencies add up cumulatively over time.

These ideas of how to carry out my values of “doing less, more selectively brings more benefit” seems to be tricky to present to others for various reasons. Many other topics also posses this same challenge. Of course, this challenge of how “less is more” is at odds with the prevailing values of my American culture.
The value of timing a small effort, rather than offering a huge effort in an untimely way is an extremely interesting topic to explore. The interesting part is how to determine what is the appropriate time? It also has ramifications for the health of the planet, etc. The American ideals of “more and more is better and better” is going to have to undergo a significant change, if environmental concerns are going to be successfully addressed.

There are some factors in tactfully introducing an unpopular subject. It is handy to have foreknowledge of the various debate tactics people tend to use to dismiss the validity of your topic that you’d like people to value and/or take advantage of. With their mistaken assumptions about what something IS, people tend to want to fit what is unfamiliar into something familiar that they already know.

One of these debate tactics of dismissal is to say, “Oh, that old thing. We’ve already considered it. ” (Of course a rebuttal might be, “Perhaps there is a reason why that old thing hasn’t already gone away? Because people find it useful after all this time. So perhaps you mistakenly dismissed it before you learned enough about it to discern it’s value?”) Another categorization tactic: “That idea is exactly like this other thing…”

People when they find something new, they want to familiarize it. Perhaps having names for these debate tactics in a list would help us dispense with having to grapple with them over and over again? The debate model is an overused one. There are so many other thinking skills available than debate argument, such as lateral thinking.

OK, so HOW do you address uncovering problems that people may not want to know they have? How do you delicately and tactfully open “a can of worms” for people? Part of the reason people shrink back from admitting they have a particular problem is that they would not know how to solve it if they did acknowledge it!

When it comes to new processes, new ways of thinking, new ways of considering perception, new ideas, new inventions, these problems are common in presenting nearly everything unique, interesting and novel. These issues are also present in formerly useful practices and/or skills that were historically passed up, ignored and possibly forgotten. People might want to resurrect these “tried and true” solutions when the supposedly “better” improvement turns out to have unforeseen drawbacks.

So, I asked a very successful speaker how to deal with it. She’s Barbara Sher. She is a career counselor and speaker with multiple books under her belt in print for thirty years who now writing another book going into depth about the various reasons why certain unique groups of people do not figure out how to become a success. What she is describing as various ways of dealing with “resistance” sounds quite a bit like “inhibition.”

Her advice to me about presenting unusual topics was simple. The key presenting the solutions to unusual problems is to tell stories about why someone would need what I had to offer. These stories would illustrate why someone would want to bother to learn new ways of dealing with what has been more expediently dismissed or ignored. These stories would be about the often forgotten ways how people answered questions and designed solutions that were somewhat short-sighted at a time when they did not know what else to do.  Now circumstances have changed that encouraged new ways of doing things. Of course, eventually these “improvements” that are being designed now will also need to change.

These funny situations would illustrate universal human quandaries and paradoxes. You tell these stories and everyone laughs or cries or both. They can be self-deprecating stories or about other people who struggled and lost. But the common thread, which you spell out are that people dismissed any possibility of changing these problems because they assumed “there wasn’t a solution anyway.”

Then you offer your solutions that specifically addresses the problem. This creates hope for people that possibly there is a way out (or a return to previously valued ways) for the people listening. Their frustration level is not as great as they imagined at first, because if others have succeeded, so can they.

My story comes from a playground of my distant past when I was raising someone else’s six year old. The kid had done a pretty amazing series of moves on the monkey bar built on the side of a swing, sliding down to twisting into a wonderfully elegant twisting dismount from the swing. I had seen his antics, but he wanted to show his dad, who missed his pretty cool trick. Of course, when his dad was watching, the trick the boy had done the first time didn’t work out the same way. The poor kid was quite confused and embarassed. He had just done the trick once, why could he not do it again?

So – I’m collecting stories now. Little stories. Let me know if you have a good one.

Wright or Rong?

In schools these days, kids are being graded depending on if they are wrong or right. Many times this has to do with how well they read the mind of the teacher – not if they responded to the question. In my era of education, it was O.K. to misunderstand the question – it was the response that mattered, not the content of the response. Now students get graded on whether they understood the question itself!

Guess that it’s an advantage to understand the intent of the questioner. Then your boss doesn’t get mad because they told you to do something inarticulately. But where is the creative misunderstanding that generates new solutions?

How can adults imagine they are preparing kids for the future by not allowing creative responses that often come from misunderstanding the nature of the question?

In practicing Alexander Technique, we deliberately make a point of putting aside sorting for wrong and right. This is because a person can only sort for wrong or right based on what they know. Sometimes we call that intention to avoid “right & wrong” as a deliberate act or prevention or suspension. If we do not stop automatic urges to conform and “do the right thing,” then nothing new has a chance to happen.

In using and learning Alexander Technique, exploring and noting what is new that might happen is the point. We want to put off coming to a conclusion before we’ve gotten more information. How much information is enough? Enough to use in some way. What we’re after is to have some new experiences so there are many interesting pieces of perceptual information availble to interpret with. We note the ones that don’t fit our previous experiences more carefully than what is expected. We like to think about what has happened that was unexpected. We would come to conclusions about the new information as a separate action from experimenting.

Generally, the idea is that, so you can have more freedom, you must move. The directions you can move in are somewhere different from the other direction your habit wants to take you when you curl up, twist, collapse or tighten. Sometimes you find that this “somewhere different” is also a habit – so you choose a different response or motion. We’ve learned from Alexander Technique that more room to move is created if the motion starts headfirst – so you can experiment with that.

Given the pervasive quality of sensory distortion that getting used to states of being gives us, we know that a person registers kinetic changes rather than a state of being. This means that as you improve your freedom of motion, you’ll feel a “catch” where you are stopping the motion. So if you feel yourself moving the most from your ribs, then it is probably your ribs that are the most tight and set by your habits. As you undo the habit, something must move – so include whatever has jumped out at you that seems to be stuck with your intention to move again. Eventually you’ll be able to do this more often for yourself with only a thought and a very subtle opening out in response to your intention.

Everyone sets themselves into their habits a little differently – but, as you noticed, there are common themes of misuse. Get familar with your “themes of misuse.” Practice forgiveness. Appreciate the reasons you know about for doing what you do. Acknowledge that in some way, this misuse of yours must have answered a need in the past. It’s still appropriate at some times, nothing is “bad”. Over time a habit can “go bad because repeating anything can swing to extremes. Things get “bad” if you stay stuck in them. To the extent that you can come “unstuck,” then you will not suffer any possibly extreme, painful effects. Of course, as you can move easier in general, then you will be better off over time. Of course, we get better at whatever we practice. So practice what you want to do. Minimize and leave behind what you don’t want.

Try laying down on your back with your knees up on something comfortable and talk yourself through your experiments about freeing motion and see what happens. If you then notice another part of yourself getting stiff – see if you can stop that by including the stiff part of yourself into your slow motion experiments.

Once you start re-distributing your dynamic capacity for movement, the tendency is to try to “keep” yourself in that “better” position. You can hurt yourself doing that, so it’s better to go back into your habit and then move out of it again, doing what you did before… and describe what happens. Then rest before you try it again.

Try taking yourself into an action with that new way of moving as a beginning to start the movement. Think of this new way of unfolding as a way to “launch yourself” into motion. You can tell what happened by the quality of the motion – the sound of your voice – how heavy your feet hit the floor, etc.

So – the next time you’re experimenting like this – ask yourself, “what happened before I noticed this?” …and, “what did I do just before that?” and keep asking the questions…as far back as your awareness was awake enough to sense or remember. Your memory will get better – and, since habits are usually so repetitive, you’ll be able to trace your attention back to what you did, further and further.

The ability to sustain your perceptive attention is key. Leave out ‘trying’ to ‘make’ yourself do something you already have in mind. When you consider it, you don’t really know what will happen as you move toward freedom. You don’t know how far you’ll go, you don’t know what the effects might be. You don’t know what your experimenting is going to tell you – it may be something you’ve never noticed before.You merely can ask questions – move in a new direction – with easy qualities, with new timing, perhaps in new sequences, and then find out what happened and describe it to yourself.

Teaching Kids Abstract Thinking

Most kids are familiar with how things they want to do a certain way will sometimes happen as if by magic. But it can be very tricky for them to figure out how to duplicate what they want to happen again.

To rouse interest when presenting Alexander Technique principles to kids, using any action a kid is interested in will make learning fun. Use balancing or cumulative skills (- such as learning to throw a ball, hit a ball with a bat, or riding a bike) for illustrating F.M. Alexander’s principles.

Kids are learning machines anyway, so they are very fun to work with – but keep lessons short; perhaps ten to fifteen minutes. Showing them some tips about how to experiment so their experimenting goes faster and is more effective will be very useful to them.

As you teach, bear in mind that kids are not able to abstract principles into different situations, unless they are specifically taught how to do so in those situations. Kids are naturally literal thinkers. Helping kids become lateral (sideways creative) thinkers is a challenge. It’s up to the teacher to carry the thread of meaning and relationship from many specifically different activities. Draw the similarities between them for the kids.

Guess there are a quite a few grownups who could use this approach as well!

Also find that for kids a little older, say beyond 6 years old, it’s helpful to be using stories in familiar movies and fairy tales to illustrate teaching points. For instance, in the Fantasia Disney movie about Mickey Mouse who figures out how to do the magic spell with the brooms. The spell really gets out of control when Mickey doesn’t know how to undo it. This story can help kids understand the nature of training themselves to do a repeated habitual order that gets out of control when they can’t cancel it. In Alexander Technique, we call this distorted sensory appreciation, (otherwise known as debauchery.)

This helps teach the secret that if you have already taught yourself how to do something, it will take a little extra skill and time to unteach the old thing you already know. Habits are tricky and “relative” – meaning habits likely to tell you information about where you are and what you are doing with your body that isn’t really true!

Once taught a four year old about how much extra energy is required to compensate for balance and how he can adapt to anything by spinning him on an office chair. How dizzy it feels to stop spinning is a great situation to illustrate a number of points. How come grownups get so stiff thinking they are going to fall down when they’re not really falling?

I like to encourage kids to avoid becoming stiff like adults are, and to regard their natural flexibility as something valuable. Along this idea, it’s handy to ask such questions like “How do adults get stiff when they start out as kids, who are so flexible?” Of course, part of the answer is that grownups expect to be right, and kids expect to be wrong – so kids are more willing to experiment than most grownups. Also great to encourage kids to model the grownups around them who have better natural good use, so the kid doesn’t pick up postural sets from the grownups that they admire that are too extreme.

Most of the challenges for many kids that age, depending on the kid, is fear; they like predictability rather than facing the unknown. Doing what you are scared to do or what’s really new feels sometimes really weird, but exciting. So giving fun experiences that outline which sort of experimenting has the feelings of a fun kind of weird. Most important to illustrate is how can a kid make it safe to try something risky while they’re experimenting?
When they have just accidentally done a new thing, sometimes I’ll ask kids questions such as: how many times do you need to do that the way you wanted before you can do it anytime you want? That teaches them patience and persistence, if they know that they need to do something four or five times before they know it – or maybe it takes them six times before it doesn’t feel so strange. Also teach them incubation learning – to stop for a moment when they do something that impresses them so it can “sink in.”

A fun concept to play with is that muscles are similar to springs in that muscles return to their natural shape when you take the pressure off of them.  For this experiment, it’s handy to have a huge exercise ball, a trampoline or a pogo-springs stick.

Love to hear more suggestions about how to teach Alexander Technique concepts to kids. Have any?