What we are attempting to do in the following exercises is help the children stretch their mental muscles to look beyond immediate experience. This is not something that will change in the short term and the following ideas should be used as often as possible and in a variety of ways.

Examples of Specific Exercises

“What if…?” This simple question can encourage young people to look beyond their noses. It can be fun and can help enrich any learning experience and any subject. In Geography, “What if the River Liffey dried up? What would happen around Dublin?” In History, “What if Columbus had never gone to the Americas?” In Science, “What if somebody invented a car that ran on milk?” In Home Economics, “What if the human being had the digestive system of a camel?” In English, “What if the Government banned poetry?” In modern languages, “What if you were only allowed to use 8 verbs, what would they be?” In Art, “What if you were standing at the other side of this still-life arrangement, draw it as it would appear from there (without going there).” In Social Education,”What if people were charged a fee for voting and you could vote as often as you could afford?”

Consequences: Start with any sentence (ideally one relating to the day’s lesson material), for example, “I went to Belfast on Saturday morning.” The next person must continue “Because of that …” She might say, “Because of that I missed my extra hours in bed.” The next goes on, “Because of that I was not fully awake.” “Because of that I got on the bus for Connemara by mistake.” And so on. The idea is to develop awareness of consequences. After using some fun situations more serious examples could be used. “The girl started smoking at age thirteen” …. “Because of that …”

Pros and Cons: Take any issue and invite students to make pros and cons lists. For example, a 15 year-old is offered a well-paying part-time job that will require 2 hours work every week-night and 5 on a Saturday. What are the pros and what are the cons of accepting the job? This could be done as a written exercise that encourages every student to think about both sides. It could also become a debate, ideally one where the two teams are asked to switch sides at some point. In an English class students could be asked to make a list of the positive and negative aspects of a literary character, Hamlet for example.

Alternative view-points: Any exercise that encourages the taking of more than one viewpoint should help abstraction grow. Choose a recent football game, for example. How was the final score viewed by each side’s supporters? How are you seen by different members of your family? A research study into the ways different newspapers (or political parties) report the same event would be another example.

Thinking challenges: Teasers and puzzles encourage people to think and enjoy thinking. They invite the individual to stretch their minds beyond the obvious:

  • What is five fifths of two thirds?
  • What can go up a chimney down but cannot come down a chimney up?
  • What was the largest island in the world before Australia was discovered by Europeans?
  • How many tracks are there on one side of a 12-inch vinyl record? (Answers at the foot of this page.)
  • How many different uses can you think of for a brick?
  • What song is your favourite as far as the words (lyrics) are concerned? Is it better than any (or all) of the poems in your poetry book? Argue your case.

Summarising: This is a vital skill for studying and yet we sometimes forget to train our students in it. It is a very specific and very useful type of abstraction. A good starting point can be to ask students to identify the most important words (keywords) in a passage. Then encourage them to note how these words might group or link together. Finally show them how to build a structure such as a spider diagram to represent the ideas. A related exercise is to ask them to read a paragraph and then invent a title for it. A similar skill that is equally important is that of over-viewing, creating a quick summary of something before working on the detail.

Giving students real responsibilities. If the area of control of young people is so safe that they can never make mistakes (and be exposed to the real consequences of those mistakes), they will not be stretching their abstraction muscles very much if at all. An acceptable level of risk is part of any acceptable level of education. A committee that comes together to plan a graduation celebration or to publish a school year-book are good examples of healthy responsibilities.

Answers to the first four questions above.

  • two thirds
  • an umbrella
  • Australia of course
  • one


From dystraxia.ie