While most students in middle childhood have achieved the Concrete Operations stage, they have not yet reached the level of reasoning about more abstract concepts that will occur in adolescence and early adulthood. Young children cannot easily consider complicated hypothetical situations or make sense of intangible ideas. For example, they may have a basic understanding of the concept of freedom, but will need help with the concept of liberty in the context of social freedom from oppression.
Spatial reasoning exercises in mathematics can support the development of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking in mathematics could involve finding patterns in statistical data. In literature, students who are concrete thinkers can recognize that John likes Jane, while students who are abstract thinkers can reflect on John’s emotions, such as affection, and how they are represented. Students who are abstract thinkers are able to perceive analogies and relationships their peers may not see and thereby understand higher levels of abstraction.
While spatial reasoning or other mathematics exercises may help to promote higher-order thinking in middle childhood, they will not necessarily aid the student in abstract thinking about social concepts being taught in a social studies class because abstract thinking is domain specific. A student can be a reasonably flexible and abstract thinker in one area (e.g., literature) and remain a concrete thinker in another area (e.g., sports). Because of this, attempts to facilitate increasingly abstract thinking should be made within all relevant academic areas of mathematics, literature, science, social studies. The teacher cannot expect that improvements in one area will automatically yield improvements in another. Teachers support their students in developing abstract thinking by linking abstract concepts to concrete things. To avoid overwhelming students with complex language and ideas, similar language and analogies should be used by teachers across all subjects.