Understanding Understanding

One way to make distinctions among the kinds of learning is to differen­tiate knowledge, skill, and understanding. Let me illustrate with an example of understanding.

Gilbert Ryle opens a piece of his[1] with the following conversation: “Don’t you know the difference between right and wrong?” “Well, I did learn it once, but I have forgotten it.”  He then adds, “This is a ridiculous thing to say. But why is it ridic­ulous?” Let us take his answer through the three kinds of learning.

The first possible answer to his question, which he gives in order to criticize, is that “the difference between right and wrong” is a collection of facts and labels: “duties to be done and derelictions to be apologized for.” We retain it, the argument goes, in something like the way we retain the reminders of the imminence of Christmas in early December: we remember the difference because we are reminded of it in factual encounters. If this were so, argues Ryle, then one might credit such forgetfulness as rare but not ridiculous. (I would argue that factual knowledge is the easiest kind to forget, and forgetfulness not so rare, particularly after cramming.)

The second answer, which he also dismisses, is that “knowing the difference between right and wrong is of a piece… with knowing how to do things.” If knowing the difference between right and wrong were a skill, he argues, it would improve with use and worsen with desuetude; but that is not the case. We don’t speak of conscience as we do of a golf swing. We can go to the driving range to improve our swing, but we don’t go to the right-and-wrong range to improve our conscience. People who have spiritual directors do not call them “Coach.” One can become more callous, but when one does, one is not “getting rusty.” (Learning as skill can be dusted off and brushed up, hence “refresher courses;” but whoever heard of a refresher course in ethics?)

The third, incomplete but not entirely wrong, is that knowing the difference between right and wrong is an educated taste or a cultivated preference. Since we usually associate tastes and preferences not just with knowing but also with approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites—it seems incongruous, but not ridiculous, to have such knowledge and then to let it fall into disuse. Nor would we say that conscience is a kind of expertise or connoisseurship; otherwise, we could not expect it to be common knowledge. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is not this kind of understanding, though it is close.

Why, Ryle asks, if virtue can be taught, do we not have universities and technical colleges giving courses in “industriousness, fair-mindedness, and loyalty?” The answer is not that it cannot be taught. That is the answer you would expect of some­one who thinks that teaching and learning are all instruction and “behavioral objectives.” The answer is that it lies outside the scope of our “academic epistemologies,” in terrain inhabited by “inspiring, kindling, and infecting.”

I would add to Ryle’s discussion my own insight as a teacher: that this terrain, discovered or established by a good teacher and found by a good student or pointed out to other students, is primarily emotional, as Ryle’s discussion of understanding suggests. The emotions are complex, but they must include sympathy in both teacher and student. On the teacher’s part they include, as noted above, approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites. On the student’s part they include the capacity to feel these emotions as well as some kind of uninstructed relish for what is being taught. They also include an act of faith or trust whereby the teacher’s feelings become an object of sympathetic emulation. The student learns the subject about which the teacher has these feelings, and activates or maybe even learns the feelings themselves, by application, by proving-encounters with the teacher (as on a Socratic or other proving-ground), and by inculcation. It is a powerful way to learn, which explains why even those who have not articulated how they learned this way can find absurd the notion of forgetting their lessons.

[1] “On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong.”


The Relevance of Vaults and Visitations

“…something rich and strange”—Shakespeare

“…enter the past imaginatively”—Flannery O’Connor

“…emotional and intellectual sympathy with ways other than ours”—Jacques Barzun

Many good things come from watching good teachers in action. First is fascination: how do they do it? Second, curiosity: what are they doing? Third is interest: I want to take the rest of this class. Last, to another teacher, is applicability: how can I assimilate what these teachers do well?

All of the above came into play as I observed Mr. Roke, a teacher of Western history, in his classes. He taught at a public school whose students were mostly the children of military personnel stationed at nearby military bases, cycling in and out of the school according to their parents’ tours of duty. He had been there for about twenty-five years when I visited.

His classes had a strong orientation to the visual and to art history as well as to memorable stories linked by ideas. The classroom itself was a museum of cuttings, pictures, old student art, and bric-a-brac amassed during his career.  Every few weeks the classroom would undergo a complete change in displays from floor to ceiling, coinciding with the period being taught. Out went the gothic cathedrals and coats of arms; in came the Bernini sculptures.

Mr. Roke gave lectures with slides and filmstrips. When he used a filmstrip, he disregarded the tedious recorded lecture accompanying it, and used his own lectures, which were far more interesting. What he couldn’t show in photos and slides he often produced on the blackboard. I remember particularly an illustration in three-color chalk of a quadripartite rib vault that formed a part of one lecture. Other examples came from the decorated walls of the classroom, so that by the end of each historical period, the decorations had become familiar to the students.  Students took notes on these lectures.

(The quality of recorded lectures accompanying “media” stuff varies vastly and scandalously, from the likes of Simon Schama on the high end to performances of appalling paint-peeling dullness on the other. How often do those ordering these “materials” actually listen to and criticize the words accompanying the pictures as a part of the decision to purchase? Vetting such things should be mandatory.)

One particularly fine demonstration of what he had accomplished occurred during a discussion of an assignment in class to compare and contrast a Renaissance and a Baroque painting of the Visitation. His students were making intelligent comments on what distinguished the two pieces. Mr. Roke told me that one former student of his, in a thank-you note penned a few years later, said that he was able to take his parents to an art museum and comment on the pictures they were looking at.

A dreary critic might ask why students were being taught “content” such as Baroque Visitations in a history course taught in a public school whose curriculum needed to be “secular” and “relevant.” The answer is that in being made alive to the past in their present they were becoming fledgling critics taking art and history seriously. The focus on art, though unusual, was at least a focus, and it enabled Mr. Roke to confer some coherence on his subject. It held together and permitted students to achieve coherence in their own thinking when they wrote about the past. It presented them with the unfamiliar so they would be prevented from relying on thought-clichés and caked wisdom in place of doing real and actual thinking. It gave them a sense that history is more than a maze of multiple-choice questions. It helped prepare them for their own future work, to which one hopes they will bring an organizing intelligence, a sound judgment, and a sense of clarity and vividness in communication, all of which good history teaches.


Legislating Performance

Watching the BBC’s video report on Finnish schools, I was struck by two things outside the schoolhouse. One was that the family serving as a focal point of the report ate meals together, including breakfast, conversing with one another over their dishes. Dad asked the kids about their day at school. The other was the head teacher (principal) interviewed. He appreciated that Finnish governmental officials trusted him and his teachers to go about their business.

To put this in perspective, you must try and imagine an interview by CNN of the principal of a school in California or Florida, in which the principal thanks his home state’s politicians for the trust they repose in him and his teachers. You must also imagine breakfast tables across California with school children eating while having a friendly give-and-take with Mom and Dad before heading off to school. And you must imagine young Californians and Floridians beaming over their scores on graduation tests that have not been cooked so that students can pass them with random answers, as can happen with tests for promotion in New York.

Wanting to do its part in making this imaginative indulgence a reality, the Florida State Legislature recently passed a bill basing teachers’ pay partly on the scores their students get on standardized tests. The Governor vetoed the bill as I was writing this piece. I doubt the bill would have done any good. To see why, let’s imagine a new, improved formula based on the same old, ineffective premises.

Since the legislature has decided to manage details of educational policy, the new bill would have to include legislators’ pay in its performance-based scheme. When it sets policies that result in higher scores, its members get a raise. Otherwise, they would get a pay cut.

Since parents’ formation of their children’s home life has such a great effect on how they do in school, parents would need to have their performance evaluated and either rewarded or penalized too. Florida tax forms could have a section in which parents report their children’s test scores. If they exceed a certain amount, the parents would receive an augmented refund or be forgiven a part of their tax bill. Otherwise, they would be subject to a surcharge.

You can see what dump this thought-experiment belongs in, so you should draw the needed conclusion about any test-based rewards and penalties assessed by legislation directed at classes of people. No, not New York-style promotion tests either. The solutions lie elsewhere.


Beanbags and Bedsheets

A blessedly former colleague of mine once trooped her class out to the Upper Field, where they filled water balloons and then threw them at each other in two teams. One team was the Redcoats; the other, the Colonists. The objective of the lesson was to get the students to understand the American Revolution.

In this lesson students did not learn about the American Revolution; they learned about water balloon fights. It is misguided to think that substituting one activity (such as war) by another (such as throwing water balloons) allows the first activity to be understood. A teacher’s intellectual default settings with respect to this kind of substitution should be “care” and “caution.” Many of us have been a part of classes in which we learned that ancient Greeks wore sheets and played games with beanbags. Some of us may remember from our school days that a “settler” is someone who bobs for apples and shoots Indians. (The lesson used to be confined to bobbing for apples.)

If we look at Henry Adams’s “The United States in 1800” for our sense of reality, we find out that the children of the Westward Expansion were more likely to drink whiskey than to bob for apples. The young Athenian citizens in Jacob Burckhardt despised work and locked their women indoors. No need to feature them in History Day Outdoors, but why as an alternative should we go to any fictitious play world for lessons in fictitious history? Care and caution could eliminate confusion and the resulting debasement of history: no longer would anyone be able to write of Lincoln that “he went to the movies and got shot.”

Maybe the former colleague recognized this kind of mistake but went ahead with the lesson in water balloons anyway. Here we must carefully examine motives and the curriculum. A history teacher may want to have a cutup day of fun at team sports, but they properly belong in physical education or on one of the days of recreation that many schools have from time to time.

The third possibility is that the teacher was knowingly offering nonsense as a rationale. Students are very good at baloney detection, and many will happily become complicit in its use, particularly if it gets them off a hook or helps them justify “free” time and an escape from rigor disguised as “creativity.” But the time is not free. It is bought at the expense of fruitful instruction, and it teaches the students that baloney works, a thing many of them have already learned too well.


More on Finnish Schools

Not just The New York Times but also BBC has had a look at Finnish schools, and its report is worth examining both for what it says and for what it leaves unexamined.

Two things the report notes should be seen as in tandem: that a Finnish classroom has students of different abilities, and that it has not one but three teachers present in order to help them with what they need to learn. Edspeak refers to “differentiated instruction,” which means “attending to students’ particular needs”—an excellent goal when approached realistically.If students have widely different needs, more than one teacher will more effectively meet them. By contrast, looking at a poor non-Finnish teacher confronted alone by a roomful of variety, I think of those statues of four-armed gods dancing in a circle of flames. All that work, and none of the worship!

No, I don’t require worship. Respect will do. A Finnish head teacher (principal) interviewed by BBC stresses the element of trust in the schools there: trust of teachers by principals, and trust of schools by politicians. To the objection that trust and respect must be earned I would counter that they are part of the working capital of a functional system, not one of its dividends.

The interview with the teacher Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen confirmed something from my own experience: keeping the same students for a number of years is extra­ordinarily beneficial for both student and teacher. When on the first day of class I look at a roomful of known students, I recognize that from the first minute I can teach to each student’s needs because I already know what they are. No days or weeks of singing “Getting to Know You,” though that is a good tune in its time and place.

The Nokia executive interviewed for this report expresses satisfaction with the quality of scientific and technical education that Finnish schools provide to Nokia’s future employees. This kind of praise from this kind of source is not often heard about, say, California’s public schools, but it is not the only kind of praise I would like to hear. How about an interview with a professor of history at the University of Finland commenting on that country’s budding historians?

And to get back to the main point of my last posting: in her interview the Education Minister says of Finnish schools’ success that “the key behind it is our good teachers.” In Finland teaching is popular, and getting a place as a teacher is competitive. Desire and competence are marvelous guarantors of trustworthiness.

As for what it leaves unexamined: that will be for another posting.