When does a word matter?

I spent today’s NYC Chancellor’s Conference Day down at Math for America in a workshop presented by Richard Steinberg, a physics and education professor at The City College of New York.  He presented his case for inquiry-based science and math instruction before spending a few hours leading us through a semester’s worth of inquiry-based astronomy.  As often happens in a worthwhile session, I found many connections to my current work, and I related to a lot of Richard was saying.

The word understanding has been on my mind a lot lately.  It’s big in the CCS, and I’m making an effort to use it explicitly in my learning targets this semester.  It will be important to teach explicitly what it means to understand something, and I hope this spring to be able to get students to understand that understanding a topic is as worthwhile as we say.  Steinberg was big on this, and it shed some light on my thinking about that word.  Structured thinking about what it really means to understand: that we can apply knowledge, even out of context, that we can connect it to other knowledge, that we can extend it to new things.

Steinberg said he teaches depth because students aren’t learning from broad curricula anyway.  When he began teaching college physics, he decided to go deep into fewer subjects, and his students performed about the same on college tests.  Implicit in this was that he and his students had a better time with the material, became better thinkers, and took more away from the course than those who were merely told a bunch of content.

We talked about developing a need for vocabulary in students – the idea of discovering a phenomenon before labeling it with a vocabulary word, rather than the other way around.  I reflected on my own high school experience, when drifting through biology class in tenth grade convinced me that I wasn’t much of a science student.  There was so much to memorize!  So many words to connect to unconnected concepts!  (This was also my last year bothering to take a foreign language, which at the time came as such a relief–no more flashcards!–but that I regret now.)  In the subsequent two years, I would truly enjoy my chemistry and physics classes, where knowledge grew from knowledge, and where there was always a new need to know.  Of course, I had already been herded out of the highest science track at school – there would be no AP for me – and the knowledge that I wasn’t a science guy stuck with me as I aced those more systematic classes and even discovered errors in the textbooks.

It’s not that I hated words: I loved English class, reading and writing.  I became a poetry major, for heaven’s sake.  But there was a difference between celebrating words for their use and drudging through them so that they could be used to identify things I’d never seen, or touched, or experienced.  For a long time, I’ve fancied myself quite a book learner, but I’m realizing now that it’s not that.  I can be cerebral – but there needs to be an experience happening, even if it’s all in my head.  There needs to be a reason for a word.  Once there has been a worthwhile experience (and I could be talking about remembering someone’s name here, too) that proves I need a word for anything, I’ll never forget that word.  I’ll celebrate it and use it, and sometimes go too far by expecting everyone else to know precisely what I mean.

So – with full acknowledgement to the range of learning styles that exist – I want my students to get there.  I’ve expressed to them my disdain for memorization plenty of times, but now I’m feeling more certain that I have plenty with which to help them replace it.  Let’s really get to the point of wanting words, then learn them.  Let’s experience, in simple ways at first, that when we really understand a concept, we truly engage it, and it feeds into a cycle of picking up new knowledge as we so please.  Let’s consider words as the precise tools they are, and bask in the quiet that follows knowing we’ve said what we want to say.

 

 

PS. A good idea for an ongoing homework assignment: have students search for isomorphic/circular reasoning in pop-culture or politics, and work to debunk it.

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