The Art of Abstraction

london underground map, a demonstration of abstraction

What is abstraction?

Have you ever travelled on the London Underground system? If so, you’ve probably picked up a Tube map and worked out which line you need, if you need to change, and how many stops will get you to where you want to go. Did you need to know how far it actually is between each stop on the ground, and where each location is in relation to each other? Probably not, you just needed to get from A to B. This is a classic example of abstraction, removing unnecessary detail to leave only the bits of information we really need. In this case, we have abandoned accuracy to create a more easily-navigated mental map of London.

Why is abstraction important?

All teachers will be well versed in the art of abstraction, even if the word is something new. A history teacher for example will decide which elements of the Cold War are key when teaching this topic whereas a maths teacher might express a word problem through the abstract language of algebra. Even the school calendar is an abstraction, with only the important details included. It’s all about simplifying things.

And abstraction is a key term in the new Computing curriculum, helping pupils to become effective computational thinkers (problem solvers).  Learning to focus on the most vital elements of a problem will help to simplify the solution. Pupils will be doing this a lot of this already throughout the primary curriculum:

  • In maths, working with ‘word problems’ often involves a process of identifying the key information and establishing how to represent the problem in the more abstract language of arithmetic, algebra or geometry.
  • In geography, pupils can be helped to see a map as an abstraction of the complexity of the environment, with maps of different scales providing some sense of the layered nature of abstraction in computing.
  • In music, the piano score of a pop song might be thought of as an abstraction for that piece of music.
  • When creating a story plan, a summary, or working out a mind map pupils are abstracting, as they are leaving to one side the detail they do not need at that time.
  • Simulations and models are also abstractions: these are used across the curriculum to explain ideas. For example, science simulations might help to teach about gravity, history simulations about the Roman invasion of Britain and physical geography models give insights about how fossilisation occurs. 

How can I teach abstraction?

The team at Barefoot Computing (we’re behind their great free workshops!) have created a range of resources to support you to introduce abstraction in your primary classroom. Some are ‘unplugged’ activities whereas some require the use of computers.  Here’s a quick summary of the activities available:

  • Abstraction Unplugged Activity: Guess what - This is an unplugged activity in which pupils create simple models from modelling dough or draw quick sketches for a partner to guess what they are representing.
  • Solar System Simulation - In this activity pupils create a simulation of the Earth orbiting the Sun using Scratch. Pupils firstly decide what the purpose of the simulation is and who is the intended audience. Using this, they then decide what the most important aspects of the simulation are, and in so doing they are abstracting.
  • Dinosaur Fossil Activity - In this activity pupils program an animation illustrating the steps in fossil formation. In doing so they learn that programming is the process of implementing algorithms as code, and about sequencing commands in Scratch.
  • Modelling the Internet - In this activity pupils learn that the internet is a vast network of computers and other devices connected across the world as they explore the difference between the internet and the world wide web (WWW)

And should you feel you have further questions about abstraction and would like to find out more before you introduce this new term to pupils, this page should be really helpful.

To find about more about the free Barefoot resources, visit the website and start downloading today!

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