Rereading Moffett – Month Two

For me, James Moffett is a bit of a lost key.

His notions about abstraction, in particular, were an eye opening journey of discovering and clarifying my own notions on the subject. I arrived at a point as a teacher where I began chasing the idea of abstraction and how important it was to guide my students toward greater depth and sophistication in their thinking, graduating from the more concrete towards the abstract.

In a possible oversimplification, I think for Moffett abstraction was about getting outside of the self, a continuum of moving from what seems real to what might be framed as ideal, and a growing awareness of a much larger, unknowable audience to be reached.

It is aspirational and about reaching higher, farther.

A colleague in the group mentioned Moffett reveals “rabbit holes of curiosity,” a lovely phrase.

Teaching high school students presents the opportunity to explore the continuum between concrete and abstract at possibly the most dynamic and emergent moment in a student’s cognitive development. Most arrive in the ninth grade with only the most nascent ability and leave ready for a renascence that university and broader life experience can provide.

The same colleague noted how often students gravitate and select the first idea that comes to them based on their limited experience. Moffett maps how we might connect to a much larger context. As Moffett repeatedly points out, listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all elements of the symbol system of language. In The Universe of Discourse he shows our job as teachers is to help students use language with a fullness “to play freely the whole symbolic scale.” It is in the sequencing the student’s experiences where increasing awareness and facility with abstraction can become organic and most likely to develop.

Another colleague commented, “Abstraction is the power and liberation from inner speech, which can be a trap.”

Still, the personal is an essential place to start since the first audience is always the self. Yet Moffett’s genius is mapping the continuum of increasingly  remote audiences and subject matter, which subsequently fosters a student’s ability to exercise greater behavior control.

I can think of few better clarion calls than that.

Photo: James Moffett