"I'm very dyslexic, so that forced me to be quite conceptual, because I'm not very good at details. And because I'm not good at details, I tend to be rather spatial in my thinking, oriented to things in general terms, rather than the specific. That allows you to step back and say, "What's the easy way? How do I get through this easily?" It also makes you very intuitive. You tend to look at things, and you don't want to read so much; reading is harder for a dyslexic. So you become very quick, very intuitive in understanding what the point is. And that's good with ideas. And so, I feel blessed about that." - Craig McCaw, Telecommunications Pioneer
In Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, conceptual thinking is king, a point echoed by innovation leaders in all disciplines, but how is that different from anything other kind of thinking, what does neuroscience or neurologists have to say about this, and how do we teach for it?
Well, McCaw is right. There is something different about conceptual thinking, and it's something to look hard for and encourage in students because it often has everything to do with success in innovative fields in later life, but little to do with success in school, particularly at the early stages of education.
Conceptual thinking takes on many forms, but it has to do with ideas, abstractions, and "big pictures." Some call it intuitive, but that may be because its often arrived at by insight at sudden pattern recognition rather than a long chain of conscious deduction.
In the figure below, you can see that abstract words (blue) like liberty or justice recognized in a much smaller territory of brain than concrete words (yellow). That's because concrete words are linked more specifically to our physical experiences (a nice ripe juicy tomato will activate visual areas including color, touch, taste), whereas abstract words are cut free from specific experiences, so that they may group with more diverse types of information and knowledge.
Strong conceptual thinkers like to play with ideas, test limits, look for unexpected patterns, and not be tied down to physical details. Analogy and metaphor are powerful tools for the conceptual thinker, and switching disciplines or fields may be de rigueur.
Concrete vs. Abstract Words and fMRI
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Power of Analogical Thinking
Conceptual Thinking in Engineering Education
Conceptual Thinking and Radical Constructivism
Conceptual Thinking and History: Teaching with Categorizing
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Switch! - Cross-Disciplinary Learning