Set Theory, as it was taught to me in the sixties at university has given me a great model for understanding my own thinking processes. When faced with a situation that requires a creative response or a solution, I always start with the component elements of the situation. I then look to identify the range of possible relationships or connections between those elements. Mentally grouping the elements according to their commonalities, leads me to the solution.
The solution referred to might be the storyline that connects a collection of characters given to me by a group of students. It might be the creation of a music piece, with layered rhythmic patterns, or it might involve wood, silk, light and collaboration with other artists on the creation of a sculpture. This process I refer to as associative thinking. The question that presents itself in such situations is. How can I use the perceived relationships between the identified elements to help me to understand how they can be integrated into a meaningful whole?
This process can be quite complex as the elements can be viewed through a variety of prisms. Looking at them logically will give one set of relationships. Viewing them from an emotional standpoint will give another. One may look at the social context if they are characters in a story or play and find yet more relationships.
Higher order associative thinking involves a more layered process. One identifies the connections between the elements of a set from a variety of perspectives forming a number of relationship groups. The process is repeated using these new groups as the elements, discovering relationships between them and then ordering them into a new whole.
One examines the relationships between elements of a set from a series of viewpoints followed by an examination of the relationships between the resultant relationship groups. The best creative product involves this level of mental acuity.
In my teaching practice I work with learners from 5 yr olds to over 75 yr olds and I am fascinated by the degree to which this associative thinking is present or absent. In my experience the best learners move freely from one way of viewing to another, and have a quick grasp of the connections between the various essentials or elements of the object or phenomenon that is under scrutiny.
Many of the students that I work with have learning difficulties. I suspect that many of them have experienced, or are experiencing severe emotional stresses or trauma. After working with a class recently, I came away with the word “dissociation” in my head. I looked it up in the dictionary thinking that the word may actually be disassociation. I found the following.
“Dissociation – the separation of a group of normally connected mental processes, for example emotion and understanding, from the rest of the mind as a defence mechanism.” Disassociation was listed as an alternative noun with the same meaning.
What I observed, in the child concerned, was a profound disconnect between his voice in song and his hands on the drum. The two bore no relation to each other. He has a strong sense of rhythm in his use of language. He has a strong sense of rhythm in his hands as a drummer but little or no connect between the two. Using the above description this child has the capacity to associate within his language-processing centre. He seems to lack the capacity to translate this skill to his hands. He cannot sing from his language-processing centre to his kinaesthetic-processing centre.
The description above, of dissociation, cites trauma as the cause, but when one reads the literature on Autism and Apsberger’s Syndrome, it is evident that some individuals are born with a disconnection between the various thought processing centres. Perhaps, more accurately, they are over developed in their capacities in some processing centres and underdeveloped in others. Whatever its cause, this disconnect or dissociation is a profound impediment to learning.
Perhaps because I work as both a practicing artist, performer and teacher, I am convinced that learning in the arts, particularly where the learning involves a lot of cross over between disciplines, is of great benefit in the development of associative thinking processes. I would argue that the arts provide a wonderful vehicle for learner engagement with students who struggle to connect with learning, or who fail to achieve in normal learning contexts.