Seven Questions: Is your child a recipe-follower or a real learner?

CJ Westerberg, January 21, 2015 10:13 PM


"It may help to have in our minds
a picture
of what we mean by understanding . . . "

-John Holt, Why Children Fail
, p. 177

by C.J. Westerberg

I recently had a loooong conversation with a parent about whether his child (5th grader) was learning anything and who also wanted the pithy answer we all want to hear from some expert - which I am not - on high.  My go-to answer sounds something like this, "Does your child come home (especially at that age) talking about the "stuff" he or she learned in school in a conversational way?  Does he or she want to know more and is asking questions about anything somewhat related to what was learned in school?  Does he or she want to know more or even disagree with what was discussed?  Does he or she relate this "learning" to something else?"

Okay, here's another angle which is trickier -
"Does your child have "dead eyes" at the end of the school day?"  In other words, does this young learner want to get as far away as possible/escape from the school day experience?

The last question is usually a big head-thump so I searched for something in my geeky library and turned to John Holt, How Children Fail - get this - (the premise of the book - internal memos) was dated June 20, 1960:

I now realize that when we keep trying to find out
what our students understand
we are more likely than not
to destroy whatever understanding they may have.
Not until people get very secure in their knowledge
and very skillful in talking about it 
- which rules out almost all young children -
is there much point in asking them to talk about what they know,
and how they know they know it.
The closest we can come to finding out what children really know -
and it's not very close -
is to watch what they do when they are free to do
what interests them most.

And here (paragraph breaks added for format):

How can we tell whether children understand something or not? 
When I was a student, I generally knew when I understood and when
I didn't.

This had nothing to do with marks;  in the last math course I took in college I got a respectable grade, but by the end of the year I realized I didn't have the faintest idea of what the course was about.

 In Colorado I assumed for a long time that my students knew when they did, or did not, understand something. I was always urging them to tell me when they did not understand , so that with one of my clever "explanations" I could clear up everything.  But they never would tell me. 

 I came to know that by painful experience that not a child in a hundred knows whether or not he understands something, much less, if he does not, why he does not.  The child who knows, we don't have to worry about; he will be an A student.  How do we find out when, and what, the others don't understand?

What first comes to mind is some external test.  But what kinds?  By now I have many times seen children crank out right answers to problems without the faintest idea of what they were doing.  They are blind recipe-followers.  Some can even parrot back my explanations, but again without knowing what they mean. 

On the other hand, there are many children who are so paralyzed by their fear of tests that they can't show what they do know, while others who understand clearly what they are doing get confused and scared when they try to put it into words.

Part of the answer to the problem may be to give children the kind of tests I used this year, in which there was a mixture of problems.  These tend to throw the automatic answer-finding machinery out of gear and to make them do some thinking about what they are doing. 

It may help, too, to give problems in a form new to them.  But what do we do when the result of such tests is to show that hardly any of our pupils understand anything of what we have been trying to teach them during the year?

It may help to have in our minds a picture of what we mean by understanding.  I feel I understand something if I can do some, at least, of the following:

1) state it in my own words
2) give examples of it;
3) recognize it in various guises and circumstances;
4) see connections between it and other facts or ideas;
5) make use of it in various ways;
6) foresee some of its consequences;
7) state its opposite or converse.

This list is only a beginning; but it may help us in the future to find out what our students really know as opposed to what they can give the appearance of knowing, their real learning as opposed to their apparent learning.

There are many, of course, who say that this distinction does not exist. It's their handy way of solving the knotty problem of understanding; just say there is no such thing. . . . (snip)

 . . . (p. 179)  Knowledge, learning, understanding, are not linear.  They are not little bits of facts lined up in rows or piled one on top of another.
A field of knowledge, whether it be math, English(sic), history, science, music, or whatever, is a territory, and knowing it is not just a matter of knowing all the items in the territory, but of knowing how they relate to, compare with, and fit in with each other.


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"It may help to have in our minds a picture of what we mean by understanding . . . "

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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