Before facts, teach purpose, relevance and meaning

How do we assess if children have learnt a fact or not? Usually it is their ability to recall a matching answer to a question we post them.

“What is 10 x 10?”  “One hundred.” (Learnt! Tick!)

“If ten friends give you ten sweets each, how many sweets do you have?”

“Er .. er… er … ”

“Come on, if you have ten rows of ten objects, how many objects have you got?”

“Er … ”

 

While the above may seem to be a discussion of an adult with two separate children, the two children were actually one and the same. The same child could moments earlier churn out the answer for ten mutiplied by ten, yet when presented with a word problem to an answer she already knew, could not connect the two together.

Unfortunately this are the limitations faced by the education system. Assessing learning and understanding is difficult, and time-consuming, and perhaps too individual a task to be managed within the confines of a classroom ratio of 30:1. So instead of understanding if students have learnt, teachers have to demonstrate that students are capable of reproducing facts that they have more often than not memorised and kept within short term memory, then reproduced in an exam question paper that is largely fact based and recollection-biased.

As educators, we have to communicate understanding and learning alongside the acquisition of facts and knowledge. We also have to communicate a love for learning, a desire to find things out, and a desire to be creative and experiment. In many of these cases we should withhold our inner desires for the right or wrong answer, but encourage the development of ideas first, then the facts.

Here is an example. Instead of teaching by rote questions such as 10 x 10 x 20 and other mental maths facts, another technique often used is the Problem-Solving Method. This can manifest itself in methods such as these:

Give a group of eight students twelve items each, and ask them to divide up these items equally into six boxes.

Some students will realise that one way to do this is for the first student to place his item in the boxes, then the second student to continue where he left off, and for each successive student to do that in turn. This is the linear way, where the items are “added” equally into each box.

Some may decide to count how many items they have first, and then see if they can divide them into four piles. This is the multiply and then divide method.

After a ten-minute timeframe, students may report back on their answers and be encouraged to look for other methods and examine their effectiveness.

This is a time-consuming process to teach 12 x 8 = 96, and 96 divided by 4 = 24. And in many classrooms, there isn’t really that much time to do all the mental sums in this way. But in the next lesson, you could assign one group to do another similar problem, while giving another group a multiplication chart to obtain the answer from.

In this way, you have demonstrated to them that there is purpose and meaning in what they are doing, and that there is reason to learn the mental maths – so that it is a quicker way to get the answer.

Purpose, Meaning and Relevance. These should form the basis of learning upon which facts are built. This ensures that another information memorised or learnt by the textbook delivery at least has some sort of personal relevance.

Achieving Greatness

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.

We often wish for our children to achieve good things in life. Perhaps they have a skill that could be nurtured. Perhaps it could be art, music or drama. Maybe a child shows an engineering bias or a love for machinery, or craftwork. We want them to be the best they can be, to do the best they can achieve. But often we could end up visualising the final product, conveying it to them, that we neglect to convey to them the little steps we take to get there.

Too often we forget that to achieve big things we have to do things in little stages. To get from A to Z, you can’t just fix your eyes on Z and hope that by the sheer force of willpower you will be able to drag yourself all the way. It is possible, of course, depending on the size of the task, but willpower can be discouraged if you pull for too long with no end in sight, and affect the effort as well. Imagine you are pulling a heavy car tyre from one place to another, using a rope. (Why you would do that is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this is only a hypothetical example.) If you pull the heavy weight and have to move it one foot at a time, if you keep your eyes and thoughts transfixed on the end goal, then you are really going to be discouraged by how the gulf seems to be still there even though you are shifting with all your energy with each tug. And after you have done that for a while, you will feel discouraged and that will manifest itself in your effort. You will pull with less energy – why invest all the energy for little return – and when you end up in that state, it will turn out to be a negative cycle. You pull less, you move less, and finally you stop.

It is much easier mentally to break the big task into little stages and work towards the completion of each stage. Have you ever heard of people who have accomplished big projects, then told others of how, had they realised it was going to be so big at the time, they would have never started?

The achievement of a great task starts with little steps.

So perhaps a good life skill to teach our children, before we teach them to work hard and never to give up, is to be able to break tasks up into little things, to strategise. Then direct full effort into fulfiling each stage. Otherwise brute effort without direction is a waste of effort.

Teaching children the art of conversation

Have you ever had a closed conversation? You know, the type where you try to demonstrate interest in another person, but end up getting rebuffed by short, simplistic answers, which appear to signal irritation and that you are wasting another person’s time by getting in the way of more important activities they would prefer to be doing.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine.

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay.

Some children are not aware that their responses may constitute closed answers. They may not realise that it is hard work on the part of the person asking the questions to keep thinking of ways to keep the conversation going. Perhaps children have not learnt the social skill of this yet, that in an interchange both parties have to contribute.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine. What about you?

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay. What about yours?

Teaching children this structure of social exchange is a good life skill we can impart to them. In the above examples, it is just three simple words they can utter, but the empowerment is not in the words, it is the knowledge that by using such phrases, they are signalling intent to continue with the conversation and showing maturity in being able to do so.

Children from as young as four can be taught this skill. We should not expect that this kind of social skill comes without being taught, but we can show to children, demonstrate through role play, that this is how adults sometimes participate in an exchange too.

Children can learn that when someone asks them “How are you?” the correct response would be “Fine; how about you?”

When the adult that initially asks this is a conversation receives the response then the onus is on them to keep the conversation going, because the child has already fulfilled the obligation in continuing the social exchange.

The response may not necessarily be “How about you?” It can be a question, anything else that pushes the conversation back across.

“I’m fine, what did you do today?”

“Not bad. Have you been busy?”

An exchange that goes back and forth, allowing both speakers to provide information in turn is a meaningful exchange. We should teach our children meaningful exchange in order as an important skill.

It all starts with something as simple as “How about you”.