Symbolics: Making Abstract Thinking Concrete (part I)

10 Jan

A Symbolic is a concrete representation of abstract thinking, a picture that demonstrates how ideas interact and work. I use Symbolics as an alternative evaluation tool, and I have found a way to use Flickr to make the entire process much more effective. I explain how later in this post. These videos explain the concept using actual examples.

A Symbolic Explained:

Symbolics Explained Part I

Symbolics Explained Part II

Since learning about Symbolics at the beginning of my career I have used them often, but I stopped about six years ago. I originally had students complete the project using poster board and art supplies. The posters were bulky, and as I moved schools—and across an ocean—I didn’t want to lug examples around. They became a great idea that literally gathered dust.

Then, I saw Darren Kuropatwa demonstrate a unique use of Flickr. He asks his calculus students to find examples of math in the real world and then use the “Add a Note” feature in Flickr to explain how the object demonstrates various concepts. After seeing his examples, I did the easy part. I connected the dots. I thought of a way to use Flickr to have students create Symbolics online.

Now, when explaining this assignment I don’t begin with the technology. My lesson begins with an explanation of Symbolics (very similar to the videos above) and a discussion about the various kinds of processes we can find in our world. I emphasize the thinking I want students to demonstrate. In a companion post I’ve written a step-by-step account of how I set up this lesson.

After the students understand the concept of Symbolics and create a rough draft on paper, I then ask them to use Flickr to upload an original or copyleft image. Then, using the “Add a Note” feature (click More Actions), they explain how their image represents their answer. They sometimes use the comment feature to offer feedback, too. The entire project—from introduction to feedback—can be done in two 50-minute class periods, with some of the work completed as homework.

I invite you to view students’ work here. The title of each image reveals the “Big Question” their Symbolic answers, and by scrolling over the boxes on the image, you can read their explanations. Feel free to leave them a comment, too!

I think it important to note that the success of this assignment does not really hinge on the use of technology. I spend the majority of my time helping students develop their answers and analysis of the relationships between ideas. My main concern is in helping students craft their thinking. Yet, the use of technology has created many pedagogical advantages:

  • No limitation of space. In the past students could fit only a finite number of words on the poster, but now they can write as much as they want. Their ideas are not limited by spatial restrictions.
  • Revision = rigor. The examples you see will have mistakes, I am sure. Every project I have ever collected has errors, but in the past I couldn’t realistically ask students to redo writing on the actual posters. Revision would be a painful process. Now revision is easy, and I am able to hold students’ language to a higher standard as a result.
  • Expand the feedback loop. I always combined the posters with in-class jigsaw discussions. The students explained their Symbolics and offered feedback in rotating groups. I still use this method, but the feedback is no longer limited to the students in a particular group, in a particular room, at a particular time. The comment feature in Flickr expands the feedback loop. Students can now receive responses from other sections, other teachers, and even you. Please leave comments on their work!
  • Authentic audience. During the most recent round of Symbolics I let the students know I would blog about the assignment. Knowing other educators would see their work added a level of self-imposed “seriousness” that a traditional closed system does not. Students are more conscious of producing quality work when they know the outside world might be looking in.
  • Work lives beyond the deadline. I recently spoke with a junior who was excited to still be receiving comments on a YouTube video he had made for my class during his sophomore year. Because he published this work publically, the thinking and learning continues well after the course has ended. By posting their Symbolics online, the same can happen with these projects.
  • Work is easier to organize. In the past I would have to spread out the 60+ posters and assess them in a large room with many tables. Now I can view, evaluate, and share all the projects very easily and on my own time. I simply set up a Flickr group, and the students add their work to it. I have outsourced my organization and avoided the cumbersome stack of posters.

I hope you’re interested in trying Symbolics in your own classroom. The assignment can be easily adapted to most age groups, subjects, and needs. Some English colleagues have already created a variation of this assignment as an alternative to a traditional essay.

Asking students to think figuratively reveals a new layer of understanding. I am constantly impressed with the insights and connections students make, and I always gain a better perspective of their own mastery as a result…and technology makes this entire process more manageable.

NOTE: This post originally appeared at

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