Education: Learning What to Think or How to Think?

 

“We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.” – Charlotte Mason, British Educator.

I home educate my children utilizing the educational philosophies of Charlotte Mason. As I read her wise words, I am always considering how what she has written relates to my own education, an education that, in my estimation failed me. And that is coming from a nearly straight-A student who graduated with honors and a 4.2 GPA, who was accepted to every college to which I applied, and who did pretty well once in college. But even though it may appear that I received a successful education, let me explain why I don’t see it that way.

This particular idea had never even occurred to me prior to reading Mason’s words: that we can either fill a child’s mind with facts and call it an education, or we can facilitate an atmosphere in which an appetite for knowledge is fed and increased and nurtured and developed over time.

There is quite a difference between those two.

When I was a student, I was very good at doing school, but I wasn’t learning much of anything. And therein lies the difference. I understood very early on that in order to make the grade, all I had to do was learn the information, or as Mason describes it, I filled my mind as if it were a mere sac. After all, wasn’t that the point? The A on the test, my name on the honor roll, and the high class standing? I was always rewarded for those things! Certainly, it wasn’t about learning knowledge to keep and carry as my own. At least that’s not how it ever came across. I did this, filling my mind with facts, long enough to take the test and then I could dump the information that I cared nothing for, out of my mind, never to be re-consulted again.

And hence I graduated with prestige next to my name, but no knowledge and no understanding of my own to keep. I assumed all this work was so that eventually I could get to college. You know, that magical place where I could learn only about the things for which I truly cared. I was wrong about that too. 

The truth is, I had it all wrong because the system through which I was educated had it all wrong. 

When I consider the claim by President Biden and others that what we need in order for students to be more successful is simply more time, four more years of the same system, I can’t help but think about how wrong they are. We cannot simply add more years of dumping information into the minds of children and expect anything different than what we have now. 

The real tragedy is not that children aren’t in school long enough, but that we aren’t actually teaching children how to think for themselves. We are only teaching them what to think. And as we can tell by looking around, what we’re teaching them to think has been damaging and dangerous. Four more years of it will only exacerbate the problem.

Instead, what we need to affirm, as Charlotte Mason did, is that children are born persons. They are not cogs in a machine, to be treated with a one size fits all system. They are each individual and valuable and each mind is born with a desire to learn and know and understand and grow. These minds must be nurtured rightly. These desires to understand must be fed correctly.

I am no expert in education, but I can tell you that as I endeavor to educate my own children by the principles that Charlotte Mason so profoundly and beautifully presented, I can say that watching my sons and daughters make connections in their own minds, all on their own, without being told what is the right thing to know, has been one of the most incredible things to witness. To see the science of relations occur in front of your very eyes, in the mind of a young and hungry child is something almost too wonderful for words. And knowing that my children are making connections, gleaning knowledge, and feeding on ideas that they will each get to keep and carry with them for a lifetime is unparalleled. Oh how wonderful it would be for all children to have such an educational experience and foundation for their lives.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I had only three teachers who had an impact on my love of learning and how to think. One was an English teacher in high school, who delighted in discovery and understanding of what we were studying. Another was a Western Civ teacher in college. I struggled mightily to understand what the ancient civilizations were telling us about their lives beneath the things they said. I was afraid I would fail at the class. But eventually, because the professor never lost faith in me, I kept trying to understand what they were telling me. And then one day the light bulb went off! It was glorious. Finally, a very reserved English professor gave me my first C or D. (I don’t remember which because anything less than an A was a disaster.) I decided to meet with him to try to understand what I was missing. And with great kindness and sincerity, he told me. I don’t remember today what he said, but I remember walking away inspired, and was able to apply my learning to later essays. Those are the kinds of things great teachers do, and that I’m sure you are dedicated to doing with your kids, Jessi. They are so fortunate.

    • #1
  2. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Students need the know how to identify facts, find facts, reference facts, and use those facts to draw conclusions.

    Modern education doesn’t teach this. They teach respect for authority and what experts say is what facts are. So Fauci can spout contradictory opinions for forever and modern educated folks will see he is head of a science based group, so he must be an expert so everything he says is a fact.

    • #2
  3. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I am no expert in education, but I can tell you that as I endeavor to educate my own children by the principles that Charlotte Mason so profoundly and beautifully presented, I can say that watching my sons and daughters make connections in their own minds, all on their own, without being told what is the right thing to know, has been one of the most incredible things to witness. To see the science of relations occur in front of your very eyes, in the mind of a young and hungry child is something almost too wonderful for words. And knowing that my children are making connections, gleaning knowledge, and feeding on ideas that they will each get to keep and carry with them for a lifetime is unparalleled. Oh how wonderful it would be for all children to have such an educational experience and foundation for their lives.

    When children receive this kind of education, it matters little how many hours, months, or years of formal classroom time they get. Education can’t fully be measured by metrics. Colonial Americans got by with far less, yet we are still in their debt with regards to the wisdom which was manifested in the founding of this nation.

    • #3
  4. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I disagree with these ideas.

    The whole “teach them how to think instead of what to think” is wrong.  For one thing, it is a false dichotomy. One can teach both.

    For another thing, this is not the way to teach serious subjects. You learn math, or chemistry, by mastering the facts and techniques. You don’t learn by making ignorant criticisms of the periodic table or the quadratic equation.

    For another thing, you don’t teach proper moral behavior in this way.  You teach your son that he can’t hit his sister. You don’t encourage him to make up his own mind about the issue.

    Our problem is not that schools and other authorities are teaching moral principles. Our problem is that their principles are wicked, in many cases.

    • #4
  5. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Stina (View Comment):
    Students need the know how to identify facts, find facts, reference facts, and use those facts to draw conclusions.

    The opposing side of this argument about facts is that students need to learn how to think before they can learn facts.

    It is a tricky subject to debate, so I won’t try. It is extremely controversial, and it might merely make Ricochetti whom I like and respect (and who liked and respected me) angry, causing them to groundlessly attribute silly beliefs and deplorable motives to me.   (I speak from painful experience, some of it very recent :-)

    So for me, changing minds on this is the job of bright, articulate people like Charlotte Mason, as in Jessi’s case; it can only occur when a person goes of his own volition to a Charlotte, as Jessi did; and only at a time when his mind is ready to question his deeply held orthodox belief about education, as Jessi’s was.

    Instead, as someone on the other side of the debate from Stina, I will merely describe how it appears from our side.

    Here is my view:

    1. I was delighted to hear about Jessi’s experience!
      1. She had an aha! moment by reading Charlotte Mason: she had not learned to think, only had her head filled with “facts.”
      2. This is a very rare discovery for an adult to make; we are usually too thoroughly indoctrinated in the way of the system to ever change.
    2. To know a fact requires that one first know a theory
      1. That is because a fact is an answer to a particular instance of an abstract question that can only be generated by a theory.
    3. Every student enters the system with theories he created, starting with birth, but these theories have a low level of abstraction, logical consistency, symbolic representation/reusability, and unification into one, or a small number, of theories of the world.
    4. Without learning how to (a) self-generate, criticize, update, and delete more abstract, more valid, more unified theories or (b) import and understand new theories created by earlier intellectuals, he can only learn facts that answer questions generated by weak, flawed theories that he already had, or worse: regurgitate the words he memorized as the “answer” when asked a question.
    • #5
  6. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Reagan
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential
    @GLDIII

    Jesse,

    I think you and Mr Hilditch, one of the recently tenured callow youths opining at National Review, might have an interesting clash of views

    As a STEM guy I am not entirely in agreement with your outlook. I needed a solid base of a whole bunch of “facts” concerning how the world works (this typically entails a bunch of memorization) before I could even begin to solve the new problems in our technologically driven society.

    I found it required a substantial base of “facts” to even gain entry to the “E “part of STEM, which while accruing them, I can assure you was typically not a joyful experience. However once I got to a sufficient threshold, the beauty of this stuff we call creation all started to click in place. It also becomes humbling know that one will never know it all, nor be it’s master.

    III

    • #6
  7. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):
    I found it required a substantial base of “facts” to even gain entry to the “E “part of STEM, which while accruing them, I can assure you was typically not a joyful experience. However once I got to a sufficient threshold, the beauty of this stuff we call creation all started to click in place.

    I think this process you describe, rote memorization to gain entry to the thinking part of E and S part is probably an efficient or even necessary way to learn the E and S theories (i.e., how to think).  It allows you to acquire rote skill while your “thinking” mind is in a wait state, waiting for the light to come on. In EE, I never began to understand something new, like the charge layers in a semi-conductor diode or transistor, till the next year.  I just learned rote processing, while the mind worked through it.

    • #7
  8. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering.  The first two years was a lot of “what to know” but homework and lab projects always demanded more than rote recollection of those facts.

    I have a memory of my senior year. I was doing a difficult homework assignment, and a couple of approaches to the main problem had failed. But I knew that I had other ways to attack the problem (and I eventually got it right). I just had to find which of the potential approaches would work right.

    As I was doing this, the proverbial light went on, and I realized that all that time I had struggled with STEM problems led me to much more than an accumulation of facts. I had learned how to think.

    • #8
  9. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering. The first two years was a lot of “what to know” but homework and lab projects always demanded more than rote recollection of those facts.

    I have a memory of my senior year. I was doing a difficult homework assignment, and a couple of approaches to the main problem had failed. But I knew that I had other ways to attack the problem (and I eventually got it right). I just had to find which of the potential approaches would work right.

    As I was doing this, the proverbial light went on, and I realized that all that time I had struggled with STEM problems led me to much more than an accumulation of facts. I had learned how to think.

    And then they invented Excel and the process you experienced came to a stop. (Don’t even get me started on the mass ignorance of significant digits…)

    • #9
  10. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    philo (View Comment):

    And then they invented Excel and the process you experienced came to a stop. (Don’t even get me started on the mass ignorance of significant digits…)

    I may have posted this before, but when I took freshman Physics, the first 3-hour lab session was a class in significant digits, with many examples and problems to solve. From that day on, we would lose points in the lab exercises if we expressed our lab solution with either too few or too many significant digits.

     

    • #10
  11. Peter Gøthgen Member
    Peter Gøthgen
    @PeterGothgen

    All of this got much worse after NCLB.

    The idea seemed a simple and logical one.  We needed a way to compare learning at different schools, to determine if the schools were doing an appropriate job educating  ( we will set aside the whole issue of how much of the education problem is a result of things completely outside any school’s control ).  Hence, the idea for testing.

    Since the primary tests were on ELA and Math, that was where the focus fell.  If you look at the schedule for a lower grade classroom in a building like mine, you will see that Science and Social Studies fall on alternate days in the last period, often glossed over for end of day routines or skipped entirely.

    The problem hits reading primarily.  We have known for decades that once you get past basic decoding, your ability to understand a written piece is entirely dependent upon your existing subject matter.  The most famous study about this took a group of students divided by high and low readers, with high and low baseball knowledge, and gave them a reading piece about baseball.  The “low” readers who knew things about baseball beat the proverbial pants off the “high” readers who knew little about it.

    Curricula, dictated from on high by those who spent their time studying administration rather than pedagogy, double and triple down on the concept of “finding the main idea” and “supporting your argument with the text”, completely ignorant of the fact that this is entirely dependent upon subject knowledge.  English teachers are judged on their ability to make bricks by those who deny the existence of straw.  Science and Social Studies teachers see students coming in to junior high having essentially ignored the subject for their entire educational career.

    As a math teacher, I am somewhat insulated from this madness.  Common core actually specifies certain grade level fluencies – tasks at which students must be “fast and accurate” before they should be allowed to progress to the next level.  It is obvious to any math teacher that you can’t ask students to do word problems or multi-step problems until they have mastered the underlying steps, any more than you could ask a person to build a house if they don’t know how their tools work.  

    There is still a push for “higher order thinking skills”, however.  Often times students have been passed on to me lacking the basic skills they need.  In the past I have had administrators who would expect going straight to higher-level thinking anyway, with the excuse that I should just “scaffold” the necessary knowledge.  “Scaffolding” here is the equivalent of a football coach being handed a morbidly obese quarterback in a wheelchair and telling them to “scaffold” the fitness.

    “They can just look it up” is the most dangerously idiotic statement I continue to hear.  And don’t even get me started on calculators.  If the machine is doing the work, nobody needs you.

    • #11
  12. Jessi Bridges Contributor
    Jessi Bridges
    @JessiBridges

    Peter Gøthgen (View Comment):

    All of this got much worse after NCLB.

    The idea seemed a simple and logical one. We needed a way to compare learning at different schools, to determine if the schools were doing an appropriate job educating ( we will set aside the whole issue of how much of the education problem is a result of things completely outside any school’s control ). Hence, the idea for testing.

    Since the primary tests were on ELA and Math, that was where the focus fell. If you look at the schedule for a lower grade classroom in a building like mine, you will see that Science and Social Studies fall on alternate days in the last period, often glossed over for end of day routines or skipped entirely.

    The problem hits reading primarily. We have known for decades that once you get past basic decoding, your ability to understand a written piece is entirely dependent upon your existing subject matter. The most famous study about this took a group of students divided by high and low readers, with high and low baseball knowledge, and gave them a reading piece about baseball. The “low” readers who knew things about baseball beat the proverbial pants off the “high” readers who knew little about it.

    Curricula, dictated from on high by those who spent their time studying administration rather than pedagogy, double and triple down on the concept of “finding the main idea” and “supporting your argument with the text”, completely ignorant of the fact that this is entirely dependent upon subject knowledge. English teachers are judged on their ability to make bricks by those who deny the existence of straw. Science and Social Studies teachers see students coming in to junior high having essentially ignored the subject for their entire educational career.

    As a math teacher, I am somewhat insulated from this madness. Common core actually specifies certain grade level fluencies – tasks at which students must be “fast and accurate” before they should be allowed to progress to the next level. It is obvious to any math teacher that you can’t ask students to do word problems or multi-step problems until they have mastered the underlying steps, any more than you could ask a person to build a house if they don’t know how their tools work.

    There is still a push for “higher order thinking skills”, however. Often times students have been passed on to me lacking the basic skills they need. In the past I have had administrators who would expect going straight to higher-level thinking anyway, with the excuse that I should just “scaffold” the necessary knowledge. “Scaffolding” here is the equivalent of a football coach being handed a morbidly obese quarterback in a wheelchair and telling them to “scaffold” the fitness.

    “They can just look it up” is the most dangerously idiotic statement I continue to hear. And don’t even get me started on calculators. If the machine is doing the work, nobody needs you.

    I struggled tremendously with math. I don’t feel as though I was ever able to master most concepts before I was moved into the next one. Now, I could follow a set of instructions, do the step by step, and mostly get the right answer (somehow I managed to barely pass Calculus in high school and then receive a passing grade on my AP test. But if you had asked me to tell you what Calculus was, I couldn’t). I never understood the “why” behind anything we were doing, especially in the upper levels of math. I only knew what step I was expected to take to get to the next step or to the solution because I was just fine at memorizing. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be as a teacher to have students like me!

    • #12
  13. Peter Gøthgen Member
    Peter Gøthgen
    @PeterGothgen

    Jessi Bridges (View Comment):

    Peter Gøthgen (View Comment):

    I struggled tremendously with math. I don’t feel as though I was ever able to master most concepts before I was moved into the next one. Now, I could follow a set of instructions, do the step by step, and mostly get the right answer (somehow I managed to barely pass Calculus in high school and then receive a passing grade on my AP test. But if you had asked me to tell you what Calculus was, I couldn’t). I never understood the “why” behind anything we were doing, especially in the upper levels of math. I only knew what step I was expected to take to get to the next step or to the solution because I was just fine at memorizing. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be as a teacher to have students like me!

    That’s actually not a bad starting point.  I often find it advantageous be certain that something works before learning why it works.  If that allows a person to be able to replicate a procedure multiple times, then the repeated actions can be a basis for later analysis.  I can take the work a student did repeating a procedure and show them what every problem had in common.  If it works for you, and you can show someone what you did, that’s a good beginning.

    The problem, unfortunately, starts in elementary grades.  A good portion of elementary teachers are not comfortable with math.  Combine that with the fact that they have to teach 4 subjects while also teaching basic social and working skills, and every few years have to deal with new curricula, and it’s no wonder that things get confused.  One of the epiphanies I had years ago was when I realized my eighth graders were struggling with exponents because they didn’t really understand what multiplication was.  If you understand multiplication and know how to count, exponent algorithms are just basic common sense.  If you don’t, they might as well be written in Klingon.

    I find the problem of teachers passing on their discomfort with math to be akin to the stereotypical angry Catholic mother who raises an atheist child (I have known several).  When some tries to teach by saying “Don’t question it!” because they don’t have any answers themselves, the children respond by thinking there are no answers and the whole thing is claptrap.

    • #13