Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction: Praxis in Motion

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Praxis, the process of enacting theory, has played a significant role in my teaching practice, especially whenever my adult learners have a difficult time grasping a concept or feel like they are not learning as fast as they should. I find that when students begin to ask “why” and “how” questions or err repeatedly, I can rely on theory to explain and demonstrate the issue at hand. This methodology (Seabury, 1991) has worked for me and my adult learners, whose problem-solving curiosity is driven by their andragogical needs (Knowles, 1971).

The Ladder of Abstraction

I have used the Ladder of Abstraction theory to explain essay writing. I have also used it to teach paraphrasing. In this post, I will focus on essay writing.

Image created in PowerPoint by Cecilia

This theory, developed by Canadian-born linguist Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, illustrates how concepts move up and down a ladder (continuum), from the most abstract (general) at the top to the most concrete (specific) at the bottom.

Hayakawa (1978) gives as an example the concept of wealth as it relates to a farmer’s cow named Bessie. As shown on the image on the right, wealth, which is the most abstract concept, is placed at the very top of the ladder. Examples to explain this concept within the realm of cattle farming become more tangible as they move down the ladder, ending with Bessie, the most concrete example. The result is a cohesive flow of ideas from abstract to specific that helps to explain wealth from the perspective of the cattle farmer.

Obviously, Bessie was a very valuable cow!

Essay Structure

I find that essay writing also entails moving up and down the Ladder of Abstraction, with the thesis, topic sentences, and main supporting points at the upper half of the ladder, while examples and illustrations fall below midpoint.

Praxis in Motion

Once you have presented the theoretical underpinnings behind the Ladder of Abstraction to your class, students should begin to explore the theory. First, the instructor should give students a list of topics or ask students to come up with their own subject, either a topic that interests them or one that is relevant to their discipline. Students should work independently to develop their ideas, then in pairs, and finally in groups of four or five.

1.     Independently

Students can graphically break down their topics from the most abstract (general) to the most concrete, tangible example. This might require a main ladder to outline the entire essay and several other mini ladders, one for each body paragraph.

2.     In Pairs

In pairs, students should share their ladders, explaining their ideas from the abstract to the concrete both orally and graphically. This gives students opportunities to question, clarify, and verify whether their ladders provide sufficient movement up and down the continuum.

3.     In Groups of Four or Five (with Instructor’s Feedback)

Students can then share their ideas in groups of four or five. This offers more opportunities for consolidation and feedback from classmates and finally the teacher.

Modality Modifications

This praxis activity works well both in-class and online.

In-class: The activity requires some orchestration as students work on their own, move around the classroom, while the teacher eavesdrops, observes, and engages with each group at the end.

Online synchronously: This modality would need to be set up in a platform such as Teams, Bongo or Zoom. It also requires the use of breakout rooms, a cloud tool (e.g., Google docs, Jamboard or Microsoft Word), the chat application, a camera, and the teacher’s orchestration of the synchronous space.

Online asynchronously: This set-up is a bit more laborious but doable. It requires specific datelines for sharing, monitoring, and feedback. Besides the synchronous tools above mentioned, asynchronous time would require a Discussion Board, Padlet or Flipgrid for students to share their work and to give each other feedback. Teacher’s comments would then follow.

Extended Activity: Essay Writing

Of course, the objective of the activity is to propel students to develop good essay writing skills. Hence, the extended activity of essay writing would be the basis for the next lesson.

Have you enacted theory with your adult learners? Perhaps you could share your praxis here!


Hayakawa, S. I. (1978). Language in Thought and Action (4th ed.). Harcourt.

Knowles, M.S. (1972).  Innovations in teaching styles and approaches based upon adult learning. Journal of Education for Social Work, 8(2), 32–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23038299

Seabury, M.B. (1991). Critical thinking via the abstraction ladder. English Journal, 80(2), 4449. http://doi.org/10.2307/818752


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