Seeing the Bigger Picture

Children are naturally inclined to think small. How do we encourage children to see the bigger picture? What are the skills involved in seeing the bigger picture, or the “gestalt”. The term “gestalt” means appreciating that something is more than the sum of its individual parts — viewing the parts together allows you to see the full picture.

Take, for example, a child who is writing about the methods she used for a science experiment. First, the ability to shift her focus from a small detail - “Use the correct punctuation in this sentence” - to a wider lens - “Keep this paragraph on-topic and use the correct sequence” - requires cognitive flexibility, an executive function skill. When children can fluidly focus in and out of small detail to big picture thinking, they successfully understand not only what is expected, but why they are doing it. They are able to understand what is expected of the task.

Second, to go a step further, the ability to accurately see the “gestalt” involves another executive function skill, namely metacognition, which is the ability to self-monitor our thinking and problem solving. In the example of the science task, the child uses her metacognitive skills to zoom out and look at the big picture in terms of deeper self-assessment. She may ask herself, “Does this contain enough information so that the experiment can be replicated exactly?” or, “Did I set myself up for addressing sources of error in my discussion section later in the report?”

The ability for a child to see the big picture relies upon their ability to understand what is expected of them and why it is relevant, in addition to being able to self-assess along the way. It is little wonder that seeing the bigger picture is often challenging, since cognitive flexibility and metacognition are evolving skills for children throughout their school years.

So is it possible to teach children to see the bigger picture, to develop their cognitive flexibility and their metacognition? The answer is yes.

Why am I doing this?

Learning in Mathematics can sometimes be quite abstract. Encouraging children to engage in algebra, for example, may appear to some children as a pointless exercise without any purpose. However, explicitly giving children the reason for learning, in all areas of the curriculum, teachers at Yateley Manor put the learning into context. If you tell children that algebra is used extensively in the production of video games, as the Mathematics Department do, you suddenly have “buy in” from the children and an appreciation of where the learning fits in.

Simply telling a child they will need to learn it for next year is just about as good as saying, ‘Because I said so.”

What do I need to do?

Making the task clear from the outset will help all children but particularly those who spend hours making their work look attractive with colour and images.

How will I know how I am doing?

Giving children an indication of expectations allows them to judge their own performance against the rubric. Children are familiar with rules and will respond well to being able to see the journey of success laid out before them.

Sometimes as adults we fail to see the bigger picture, focusing instead on the small detail in some of the parts. During this lockdown it has been easy to get “bogged down” in the detail as our lives have changed and we have had little control. I have been encouraging my family members to see the bigger picture, to see how the events that they are working through fit into a wider context. We must continue to teach the children to see the bigger picture. Failure to do so will lead to an inability to focus on what really matters and could cause them to struggle in collaborative situations. We must challenge myopic approaches in the children and prepare them for successful adult lives.