Sorting Out Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding

Learning takes three forms, each of which is best developed with a different kind of teaching. Knowledge of factual detail, taxononomy, tables, formulae, and other fixed objects of study, classification, and arrangement is conveyed by didactic instruction such as lecture and recitation or in textbooks. In the younger grades the recitation can be en masse with singing and verses. The usual way of learning it is to get it by heart. For those who learn through the eye, that means study of the printed page. Those who learn by the ear might prefer to say their lessons aloud, or hear them read. The action types and wiggle-worms will want to move around as they study, or may work with manipulatives such as flash cards that they can fiddle and twiddle.

Skill at writing, speaking, physical arrangement, handling the apparatus of a laboratory, or what my P. E. coach used to call “the fundamentals” and their combination, is built up through practice and demonstration guided by coaching. The coach intervenes with words, red ink, or demonstration of the right technique. What he or she does will be determined by the student’s needs after the initial demonstration (a didactic activity) is scheduled and presented. Skill is directly tied to achievement in an activity that demands it: mere dribbling is useless without a sense of basketball, and “information literacy” is useless without a subject that it can be applied to.

Understanding, the bane of behaviorists and pons asinorum of pedagogues because it is an inner light, cannot be taught. Rather, we teachers must establish the conditions in which it can make its illuminations. The usual way of doing so is Socratic questioning or other demands for explanation and application that will show the inner light at work in unfamiliar terrain that has not been memorized. Since understanding can be mimicked in lousy assessments, a teacher looking for understanding must avoid those lousy assessments and set probing essay topics, seminars with question time, and conversations. Essays should receive clear, specific comments lauding insight and reproving glib superficiality. Consecutive thought should be evident. Teachers should demand sentence or paragraph answers showing needed detail in a matrix of good language.

A moment’s thought will yield the insight that didactic instruction is most suitable to electronic or textual mediation, while coaching and Socratic instruction demand human contact in order for skill to improve and understanding to dawn. A teacher with textbooks and e-stuff at his or her disposal should therefore arrange things so that precious class time is given over to interaction rather than simple exposition.

Looking into the backward and dark abysm of time at one of my early insights along these lines, I realized that I was foolish to take class time for the simple exposition of grammatical rules and the nuts and bolts of composition if I could shift that out of the classroom. I therefore bought texts of programmed instruction in grammar, and I devised written lessons to expand on Strunk and White’s lapidary pronouncements, which the students could work through in their own time (no apologies, Homework Lady: learning is great and the opportunity for helping students live is limited). Let them learn in the privacy of their own desktop to “enclose parenthetic expressions between commas[1]”, but let the teacher their writing coach use red ink and meet with them to discuss why they used commas on only one side of the non-restrictive appositive in their last essay. At that same meeting the teacher can offer suggestions on arrangement, diction, and concept-work; and he can ask for a rewrite.

Or maybe the teacher, having assigned a Yeats poem and an apposite bit of interpretive text, will set up work groups in class, in which students have questions to answer about the poem as they work through it with their classmates. Since the teacher is best heard when he is answering my question, the teacher can circulate, answering my questions from students in turn as they come up, derailing trains of thought to nowhere, and maybe doing a bit of blackboard work for the class as a whole if one question seems “popular.” If there’s no way around it, the teacher simply must explain, as with Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras or the appositives of “Presences” in “Among School Children,” offering a lecture on the topics, with question time during and afterwards. The point is to be available for the students’ deficits in skill and understanding.

The kind of didactic instruction best placed on e-stuff is the kind that any student will be able to get by simple listening, whether once or a number of times. Work on e-stuff is not the place to improve skill (for it can’t) or to enable understanding (for that should be in response to the student’s needs and deficits as revealed in what she says or writes).

The problem with “schools” that rely chiefly on e-stuff is that they have no reliable means to improve skill or to enable understanding, which in such places can occur only by accident. This must be done live, in real time, in order to use the window of opportunity that an evanescent interest provides or that a particular error demands in order to supply immediate and effective correction. It also allows the teacher to hold students instantly responsible for their misunderstandings and to probe understanding that is incomplete. Ingenious exceptions will only prove the rule that people improving their skill need coaches and that people with incomplete understanding need Socrates.

Flipping” may work if it consists in the deployment by teachers of their precious time in improving skill and understanding. It will be useless if it is simply a switching back-and-forth of homework and lectures that when combined don’t really improve skill or understanding at all.[2] But any effective work along these lines will not “turn education upside down”; it will turn it right side up.

[1] Strunk and White’s Rule 3

[2] A footnote on a comment made in the linked article: evidently some teachers are accused of using seat work not to improve their students’ skill and understanding but to free the teachers to answer e-mail and catch up on Facebook. If teachers regularly do such things, it suggests an abdication of professionalism on their part, and on the part of administrators complicit in their dereliction and of their unions (if any). It is good reason for counseling and personnel action aimed at the particular teacher or “tolerant” administrator, but it is not a good reason to impugn the professionalism of teachers generally.

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