Doing Without Understanding

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When teachers identify goals for what children are supposed to learn, there are three parts to consider:

  • What should kids KNOW and UNDERSTAND as a result of the lesson(s)?
  • What should they be able to DO with that knowledge?
  • How INCLINED are they to do that on their own?

Sometimes we all do things we don’t fully understand. We feel like we know how something works and we go through some steps and things seem to be okay so we do it, without much thought.

It’s only if something goes wrong that we can find ourselves in the embarrassing position of not being able to explain our actions or to problem solve our way through a situation because we never really UNDERSTOOD the problem that the ritual was designed to address in the first place.

We see this often in math. As children, we long ago learned to do long division. When called for, we probably still talk ourselves through the steps: This number goes-into that number so many times, which we write above one of the first numbers and we need to takeaway one number from another one and we bring-down a next number in a sequence and voila! We have an answer. It works just about all the time…until it doesn’t.

Sadly, however, many, many people who can DO long division don’t really understand the actual reason why they do things like determining goes-intos, conducting take-aways and executing bring-downs.

Lack of full understanding is less obvious in literacy, but kids can learn to read—or should I say, seem to learn to read—in the same manner. They can learn to identify all of the letters, and the sounds of letters and letter combinations. They can rapidly say words in lists. They can repeat back the basics elements of a story. Some can even spend time with books and pass tests that indicate they certainly must have read the book.

They can do much with books and print.

Yet, they may not actually understand what reading is. While they might know how to say words they see, some children don’t actually read them. They don’t know how to draw inferences and construct a sensible message from an author’s words and images. A significant number are foggy about why anyone would choose to read for their own education or enjoyment. So, while they are able to do what many adults accept as clear indicators of knowing how to read, they may not actually have learned much at all about the powerful use of just 26 letters and spaces and images to convey messages and ideas to others.

WHY people read, what books are, how they come to be written, what kinds of people write books and why avid readers are so eager to engage with books are all critical understandings for children to become successful, proficient readers (and writers) themselves.

Children who become lifelong readers must be taught to both understand and do reading and writing, not just to perform easily measureable skills that their families and teachers can mistake for evidence of full literacy.

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4 Responses to “Doing Without Understanding”

  1. Anna July 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    Thank you for the global perspective, Mark. I am teaching summer school and every day I wonder if I’m doing harm to kids who are barely 6 years old in trying to engage them in reading. If they don’t have a positive affect towards books and aren’t eager to participate in reading instruction, wouldn’t it just be better to wait? I have read research on “waiting to read” approaches to early literacy, and it seems to me that we have accelerated elementary academics entirely too much, especially in communities where students haven’t had sufficient exposure to books before they enter the academic setting. What do you feel is the optimal age for children to start the formal process of learning to read?

    • Mark Condon July 1, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      Thank for you thoughtful comments, Anna! I enjoyed and agree with much that you share here, but I think that you end your remarks with the wrong question! Given the natural diversity in all children, there is no optimum age at which parents and educators should being offering specific literacy lessons to all kids. The optimum age is different for every child. It could happen at any time from age 3 to 8, depending upon the child. It’s that time after which children have been read to and led to be comfortable when in pleasant conversation about books. Through those experiences they will develop understandings about how books and literacy work. Then when it is clear that they have developed a personal interest in learning to read and to write, THAT is the optimum time for each youngster to be offered some structured guidance.
      Your original question about the optimum age for beginning formal literacy instruction probably comes from how most schools are organized in the US. My ideas here don’t fit with schools that are set up like assembly lines for children. That arrangement naturally results in the children who aren’t ready for formal instruction falling behind those for whom it is a pretty good time and for those who began reading before they get to school being bored with inappropriately simple instruction.
      It’s a tough issue to be sure. I’m so glad you took the time to initiate this conversation, Anna.

  2. Michael July 2, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. Now that I teach in the adult sector I regularly come face to face with this issue.
    Here in New Zealand we call it “Critical Thinking* and you are correct in paralleling it with mathematics.
    One technique I’ve found useful is to ask learners how the storyline in a TV series triggers questions like “Who really stole the money?” or “Is he cheating on her?”
    This brings a learner’s world into the classroom, as does calculating the discount on a purchase. Teaching and learning with the familiar, I call it. Often, it works!
    Michael, NZ

    • Mark Condon July 5, 2016 at 10:50 am #

      It is indeed “critical” that we bring children’s (and adult’s) worlds into the foreground when we are working to help them understand books and reading in their lives, Michael. Thanks for the encouragement!
      And “Often” is usually the best we can hope for in our teaching on a day to day basis. ☺