Children Must Learn how to Understand

Share Button

I recently saw the cute T-shirt  shown here. Even with an explanation, understanding what we hear or read often requires some work on our parts.Capture

Of course, in repetitive, familial interactions, small children learn how to understand, how to make sense of things. That ability grows with the complexity of the learning they take on. “Give this to Grandma, please,” is a request that little ones may have to hear a dozen times, accompanied by facial expressions, gestures, smiles,  encouragement and feedback to finally get what they are asked to do. Expecting that children slowly learn to understand a simple request better over time is part of parenting. There are successive approximations of the desired outcome with each request, followed by feedback designed to help kids more fully understand expectations, eventually even anticipating them.

These same dynamics operate in schools. Professional educators, work with what they know about their students and can anticipate what it takes for understanding to occur efficiently. Along with specific lesson goals, somewhat older children will need to advance their abilities to inquire explicitly and to publicly state their misunderstandings.

Understand 1Eventually, students learn to build a threshold for understanding by reading about a topic on their own in a book or perhaps online. Authors attempt to explain things to their intended audience with words, illustrations and graphics, but even the writers (or teachers) can’t understand for children. Kids have to do that themselves by being shown how to share their confusions and ask questions of others or of authors to help them grasp what is being communicated.

Learning in these circumstances is accomplished in the context of conversation. Children who have been raised in homes where their families engage them in discussions about new experiences and ideas enter school well-prepared for independent learning interchanges. Children from families that do not invite that kind of interaction will find school more difficult.

Thus, at the core of independent learning is the assumption that we  each accept personal responsibility for doing the necessary work to understand others, either in person, from print or from digital media. If kids enter school lacking a sense of that personal responsibility, then it must be taught to them.Understand 2

The seemingly clever T-shirt inscription obscures the complexities of how children and even adults generate their own, individual and always unique understandings. It stops short of recognizing the need to articulate our conceptualizations or confusions so that others can understand them.

Understanding involves fully acknowledging and accepting our own perspectives, then seeking to learn from the contributions of classmates, authors and teachers, and finally to fully express our own conclusions to others. Learning to help another person to understand us has to be learned. It is readily available if it is taught.

This single accomplishment—learning how to understand each other through conversation—powers lifelong learning, the primary goal of every complete education.

Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Children Must Learn how to Understand”

  1. Anna Yankelevich April 5, 2018 at 1:09 pm #

    Mark, thank you for pinning the tail on that donkey! Increasingly, teachers are expected to fabricate understanding in all sorts of ways. Mostly, these ways impede true understanding, which as you said comes from repetition, time, and a sense of personal initiative on the child’s part. This sense of initiative and responsibility generally comes from learning something that is truly useful, timely, has inherent value for the child, and is naturally necessary for their living. The education establishment tries to substitute methodology for true understanding in the perpetual quest for higher achievement scores. In truth, what most kids understand is really thin until it is beefed up to sound and look better by what we call “instructional scaffolds” and “differentiation”. The root cause of these issues is really a lack of freedom for kids to pursue what is relevant to them and a lack of time to apply themselves to tasks that they find meaningful. When this freedom is present, true understanding becomes a natural result of how kids want to spend their time.

    • Mark Condon May 24, 2018 at 2:54 pm #

      That kind of engaged understanding is baked into children … until we bake it out. We have to ensure that children never lose their agency, their ownership of their own learning. Our jobs as educators can only be to show them the possibilities of every horizon. They have to be taught to go and explore what life has to offer.