People have a mental picture of a concrete concept, such as an apple, for example, but it’s very difficult to present a visually abstract idea such as, let’s say, selflessness. Abstract terms use only the most general characteristics for the description of the object. Such terms are “be” or “one.” However, an abstract concept can become concrete if we know the examples that fall within its scope.

In order to better explain the educational content to students, we need to keep in mind that different students understand and remember different concepts in different ways. Understanding abstract concepts can often be a problem, especially for younger students. For example, abstract concepts such as numbers and operations with them can be explained to younger students or students with difficulties in understanding math, using colours and shapes.

Math through Colour and Shape

Georges Cuisenaire, an elementary school teacher, is the author of a method of explaining numbers and basic mathematical operations using coloured rods. The essence of this method is that you can explain basic mathematical operations to students by using their power of visualization.

This is done by using wooden rods, with a basic unit of 1 cm and assigning different colours to each rod according to size. The set contains rods in the following colours:

  • White: 1 cm
  • Red: 2 cm
  • Green: 3 cm
  • Violet: 4 cm
  • Yellow: 5 cm
  • Dark green: 6 cm
  • Black: 7 cm
  • Brown: 8 cm
  • Blue: 9 cm
  • Orange: 10 cm

This way, it is easy for students to see which number belongs to which rod because they differ in length as well as in colour. By comparing the rods, it is possible to gradually introduce arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. For example, by joining the purple and the yellow rod, we will get the length of the blue rod.

Language Learning through Colour and Shape

Caleb Gattegno used this method even in language learning, called Silent Way, in which he uses the principle of connecting the same colour to a certain sound so that the student can visualize an abstract concept, thereby quickly and easily adopting its use. The essence of these methods is the recognized need of students to concretize the concepts that are explained to them because in that way they can more easily master their use. More broadly, this principle must always be kept in mind when teaching, so that whenever it is possible, you use practical examples, compare abstract concepts with specific terms from the environment that associate them to the concept in question and help students visualize their content.

These rods can even be used to represent entire situations in an abstract way. The teacher could use them to represent people or object. After pointing out the meaning of the rods to their students, the teacher may introduce the students to an everyday situation by using them and introduce different grammatical features of the language while explaining.

The rods can also be used to represent the word order in a sentence of a language and test the students’ knowledge by asking them to put the rods in the correct order.

Using coloured rods helps create mental images that, consequently, improve learning. This theory is based on the concept that we can learn much more if we link verbal associations with visual ones. In this way, two neuro-connections occur in the brain, one representing a verbal presentation and the other that is visual, therefore the information is much better consolidated in the memory.

To summarize – creating a unique mental picture that is not generic, but one that we can relate to, can help us remember a certain abstract concept, so the concept of selflessness can be linked to the image of a certain person who represents an embodiment of selflessness in our minds.

So the next time you are talking about abstract concepts, try using this clever technique and make it easier for your students.

About the Author

Milica Madić, freelance blog/article writer from Serbia, with experience in teaching and working with young learners.

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