Abstraction is the Core Skill for Learning

Intelligent, knowledgeable, wise!!  Don’t we all like being known for such attributes?  We spend our lives learning, passing exams, gathering degrees and certificates, and awards and recognition, little realizing that the only real attributes we get to be known for, depend on how we respond to people, and how we solve ‘problems’ in daily life.

Knowledge, for example, not only depends on what we know, but is evident from whether we are able to recall the knowledge and articulate it in a concise way that is coherent for people.  Intelligence is a ‘system’ we build within our minds to manage our knowledge, and wisdom reflects in how insightful, relevant and useful our responses are.  We can learn about anything and everything, but to learn what is useful is the most valuable.  Skills and Competencies are other dimensions of knowledge which are more application oriented and may even be more physical or kinesthetic.  We have talked about skills and competencies in another paper many years ago, which you could check out here if you like.


I understand the purpose of learning to be to assimilate, understand, comprehend, distill the essence, to integrate new information into knowledge, into what we already (believe we) know.  We could say that learning begins with identifying a ‘problem question’ in our mind, inquiring about and understanding concepts, and then being able to assimilate, apply, and leverage them with our constantly changing knowledge-base or matrix and experience to answer the problem question satisfactorily.  It is not only the ‘essence’ that we have to distill, the most relevant essence must also rise to the top of the heap as more importantly relevant compared with the other candidates of essence in consideration.

Observing around us, I found that a lot was being said, being shared, being articulated and communicated, but more often than not there seemed lack of alignment between speaker and listener, or writer and reader.  This essentially led to a waste of communication time, effort, everything, for both the giver as well as the receiver.  The listener(s) often went on to wonder… ‘what was the point?’  Instead of having a lot to say, share, etc., what if we focused on the essence and just made sure it was received and digested?  That’s where I started looking for the Abstract!  Shared below is the definition(s) of Abstract from dictionary.com.   I have italicized the meanings and senses that are most relevant to our discussion in this paper:



  • a summary of a text, scientific article, document, speech, etc.; epitome.
  • something that concentrates in itself the essential qualities of anything more extensive or more general, or of several things; essence.
  • an idea or term considered apart from some material basis or object.
  • an abstract work of art.

Verb (used with object)

  • to draw or take away; remove.
  • to divert or draw away the attention of.
  • to steal.
  • to consider as a general quality or characteristic apart from specific objects or instances: to abstract the notions of time, space, and matter.
  • to make an abstract of; summarize.


As I thought about Abstraction, and maybe abstracted some more 😊 I realized that Abstraction is actually not only the key skill for learning, it is also the ability that actually helps us accommodate more in our mind as we learn more, without having to necessarily increase the number of grey cells 😉.


This entire process of Abstraction actually increases our knowledge, as we are able to condense knowledge into its abstract and then add more knowledge into our mind, to be abstracted further, to provide more space to add more knowledge, and so on.

Assimilating and presenting requires prioritizing and emphasizing some aspects over others.  A lot may be written on a slide, and if you read out the words to the audience you are likely to face a sleeping audience pretty soon.  What people are interested in listening to is what YOU think is important., and how do YOU understand it, for that is where the clue to understanding lies for them.  If you could understand it, they are also likely to.

An analogy

The formation of learning in our minds is like the making of a ‘phulka’, or ‘roti’, the fine Indian bread, beginning with the grinding of flour, adding water, kneading, abstracting, compacting, rolling, and baking, finally leading to the separation or distinction of the two layers as it fills up with hot, wholesome air.

Thinking of existing knowledge as the grain to begin with, the grinding of flour is the breaking down and analysis of what we know, which is then made fluid and malleable with the addition of water (a Guru, or Teachings), going on to being kneaded allow connections being made from heretofore unknown knowledge, abstracting and compacting (identifying general principles and isolating the key learnings), rolling (forming a plan to implement), and baking (when the rubber meets the road), the distinct layers being the discrimination and discretion that wisdom brings.

What brings wisdom

With time, we build the belief that we already know what there is to know.  We close the doors for new learning gradually, as we think we grow wiser… But time has little to do with wisdom; it is our sensitivity to what knowledge is valuable in which situation, and how to increase the value of knowledge that is ultimately our wisdom!  It is our knowledge of knowledge that becomes our wisdom.

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