The art of abstraction--skills for the 21st century

In a recent edition of the New York Times I read an interesting interview by Kate Murphy with Syrian-born M.I.T. professor Dina Katabi. When asked about her favorite author, Professor Katabi mentioned that she liked Tawfiq al-Hakim for he “is very good at abstraction, which is exactly what we do as engineers and mathematicians. We want to abstract something that is very complex and put it in simple terms so we can think about it very deeply.” I found that to be one of the simplest and best definitions of abstraction that I have seen. In graduate school we did a good deal of “complicating” material to get at hidden meanings and deeper truths. Katabi turns this around and mentions the possibly more important skill of simplifying the complicated. However, she takes it to the next step and throws a bit of a curveball. For Professor Katabi, abstraction allows for deep thinking about complex topics. I can see a progression from the complex to the simple and then back to the complex before an insight or hypothesis can be developed. Some of my favorite columnists, people like David Brooks, are quite good at abstraction—or looking at complex developments and simplifying them to a point where they can be discussed and debated. I guess that the only danger would come in the form of oversimplification—the very trap we were trying to avoid in graduate school. Despite that danger I would argue that abstraction, as Katabi defines it, is a fundamental skill for our students to learn as they grapple with an increasingly complex world. I look forward to sharing this idea with our Academic Committee as we continue our exciting, year-long curriculum review. Please email me at bbates@dublinschool if you have any thoughts about abstraction or other critical skills for twenty-first century learning!

 

Why it's important to move from the complex to the simple...

Why it's important to move from the complex to the simple...