What is the difference between a concrete object and an abstract sign? What St. Thomas understood intuitively through the rational exploration of our faith, research science has now verified in our understanding of how the brain incorporates new information by building on what it has experienced in the past and adding new language to existing understandings. Nuerons make connections between lived experiences and the expression of language to describe those experiences.
What does that mean for teachers and parents?
Regardless of if your students are 4 or 40, they struggle to learn new concepts without some sort of concrete experience. This is a challenge for faith formation because much of what we teach is a reality that our students can’t see and touch. (But make no mistake, that makes it no less real!). We can know and use the words (signs or symbols), but if they have no experience of the thing then we are just throwing stones at them…cognitively speaking.
I would make the casual observation that due to the vast changes in family structures, the education system, and the onslaught of technology, our students are less fluent than ever in the language of faith. Perhaps one of our challenges as educators is to go back and provide opportunities for concrete exploration and experience in order to build on the firm foundation that is the truth, beauty, and goodness of Jesus Christ.
The next time you are in the classroom and it feels like you aren’t connecting with the students in front of you, step back and see if the answer might lie in a language disconnect. The closer you can tie a new concept to a concrete object or a lived experience, the more meaningful and complete the learning.