08 September 2015

Worries over losing deep conceptual knowledge: Better teaching in any subject, part 4

A concern some may have with facilitating learning through the inner game of meaning-as-uses is that it seems to turn everything into decomposed techniques and skills, lacking in holistic, deep, conceptual, or otherwise "meaningful" knowledge.

A moment's thought should give you comfort that that's very far from the truth.

Imagine complaining that by breaking tennis up into the various forehand and backhand techniques, players will lose sight of the holistic meaningful concepts required to understanding tennis.

I'd imagine a lot of the worry comes about from not "seeing" the holistic concepts being taught or learned when seeing only the individual techniques being learned.  Traditionally, we'd see the worksheets for practicing factoring quadratics but never see the worksheets for learning what quadratics are conceptually, or what the meaning of factoring is.  From that, we might be led to believe that there must be something wrong with worksheets or with not teaching concepts and meanings (as if we could even directly teach concepts or meanings at all).

In fact, the real problem is with restricting students to seeing and experiencing a very narrow range of uses of factoring and of quadratics.  From the previous post (Facilitate learning through the inner game of meaning as uses), recall the two major steps to teaching for effective learning are:
  • 1. Let students look and see, while teachers show the varieties of uses properly, in order for students to learn the proper meanings from their proper uses.
  • 2.  Facilitate the process of the student finding a personalized solution to "how do I do X in situation Y" for themselves by (A) exposing the student to many varieties of authentically realistic situations that requires them to do X, so they can pick up a personalized "groove" for doing X, but also (B) exposing the student to many authentically realistic situations that requires not doing X to ensure the student learns not to do X except in the right situations.
Notice in step two the emphasis on many varieties of authentically realistic situations.  "Meaning is use" means that meaning comes from a variety of particular uses.  By not letting students experience a variety of particular uses, the student is literally missing out on the proper meaning of what they are learning.

The real problem was not in the lack of directly teaching "concepts" or "meaning", as many seem to imply when they indict traditional worksheets or traditional teaching methods.  That's because concepts and meaning are things that exist only in people's minds, which are trapped in their heads.  The only thing that we can get students to do is see and interact behaviourally with the physical world outside their heads.  They have to construct those concepts and meanings inside their heads for themselves, hopefully based on good observations and interactions with the physical world outside their heads.

Therefore, instead of teaching concepts and meanings directly (which is physically impossible), we can only teach them indirectly via exposing the student to many varieties of authentically realistic situations that requires those concepts and meanings, then trust --- nay, have faith --- in the process that the students will conjure up for themselves the proper concepts and meanings we wished to teach them in the first place.

I haven't said much about what counts as authentically realistic situations, and I won't as yet, other than to point out that it requires at the very least that the many varieties of particular uses be integrated realistically.  That means being exposed separately and individually to the many forehand and backhand tennis techniques isn't enough, one must be exposed to them in an integrated manner.  It's easy to see how that works in tennis: just play many games and be forced to use all the many varieties of techniques.  How that applies to academic learning is maybe harder to imagine, especially in "dry" subjects like math, but it really is just as straightforward!

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