Teaching children to learn

I volunteer for a music organization in which my son is involved. Recently, through a community outreach program, my son's group was augmented by some boys from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  These boys are really nice kids. They have no "attitude." Instead, they're just sweet little people, and they obviously come from caring homes. They're also very pleased to be where they are, and are enjoying the cachet associated with this organization.

I have noticed something significant about these little boys during music theory class, though. Just as all the other boys do, they wiggle and chat -- all the time. And, as with all the other boys, you have to demand and/or capture their attention (and the theory teacher whom I assist is good at this).

But unlike all the other little boys, however, these boys seem to have few - or at least different - tools for learning. They don't respond to mnemonics, because they simply can't grasp the relationship between a mnemonic and knowledge acquisition. Thus, neither the time-worn phrase "Good Boys Do Fine Always" for the line notes, nor the word "F A C E" for the space notes has helped them master note recognition. In this they differ from the other little boys who, from day one, were able to fall back on the mnemonics when they needed to.

When it comes to rhythm recognition, all the other boys, when prompted, will place their fingers under the relevant notes so that they can "read along" as a rhythm is clapped out. These visiting boys, when prompted, freeze. They simply don't understand that concept, and I have to position their fingers under the notes every time so that they can see this principle at work. I know they'll learn this technique. I'm just surprised that they don't seem to have any concept of it now.

At the start of each class, the teacher writes on a white board the notes that are going to be highlighted in the workbook and gives them the relevant "do, re, me" labels. She does this because, in sight singing, these labels are not fixed. That is, "do" is "C" only in the key of C. In the key of G, "do" is "G." This means that for any sight singing exercise, the boys need to know which note will be "do." If the other little boys forget what "do" is in any particular exercise, they look to the white board, spot the note, and read its label. ("Aha! This time, 'do' is 'C.'") These new little boys, however, seem not to move their eyes back and forth between board and book. Even when prompted, they can't seem to track the information on the white board and relate it to their theory book.

Having worked with these little boys for a while, I've concluded that they've never been taught how to learn. To the extent they have mastered academic skills (and they all read, and none are stupid or unwilling), they've learned by brute force repetition. How dull. How meaningless. These boys are a manifest reminder that learning itself is an art form.

To my mind, the perfect approach to teaching children how to learn is to enable them, whenever possible, to see the concrete principles behind what they're being taught.  To state that Pi equals 3.14 is dull and, to a young child, meaningless and irrelevant.  To have the children measure the circumference of a circle and then visually compare it with the circle's radius makes Pi have some context.  Indeed it makes it very exciting (as you will see if you try this experiment yourself).

In the same way, when teaching children about number systems other than base ten, it's useless just to announce the rules for adding or multiplying in, say, base 8.  It's much more exciting to look at how we tell time, and to explain that our system goes back to the ancient Mesopotamia, where they had a base 60 system.  Children who are already practiced at turning 60 minutes into an hour, aside from being thrilled at this direct connection to ancient times, instantly grasp the abstract principle that there are bases other than 10, and will readily respond to lessons about how to apply this knowledge. 

Likewise, when teaching children pattern recognition, how many more minutes does it take to explain why patterns matter?  Thus, most teaching is simply limited to giving the kids techniques for calculating the next number in a series of numbers.  This is usually based on determining the number of units between each number and the next.  (Although, as I discovered, the sequence 0, 1, 2, 3, ___ actually yields two different predictive outcomes:  the number 4, if you're dealing in whole numbers; and the number 5, if you're dealing in prime numbers*.)  However, it's one thing to be told what to do and another thing entirely to be sent to the kitchen to examine the tile and see why it's extremely important to predict a pattern (the tile would be chaos without), or to understand how Mommy can knit without a pattern, just by examining what came before. 

Public schools -- at least the quality public schools in our affluent community -- operate on the assumption that children learn from play and repetition. (Although the games really are a repetition subset, since they're not intended to deepen understanding, but simply to reinforce remembering.) Public schools like to break abstract knowledge into bite size pieces. They seem to forget that, whether the abstract information is a bite or a chunk, small children don't do abstract.  They may memorize it, but they can neither apply it nor can they extrapolate from it.  It is meaningless information, stuck in an intellectual vacuum. 

For my daughter, the main problem in this teaching method shows up with math. Just as it never worked for me so many years ago when I attended public school, it doesn't work for her to be told a formula and then be expected to learn it by repeating it again and again. This holds true even when the formula is introduced through games, brightly colored objects, and gentle repetition. Instead, she learns by having the underlying principles and purposes demonstrated to her, whether she's working on algebra, fractions or pattern recognition. Give her the "why" and she'll master the "how."

My son is one of the lucky ones who has a fairly intuitive grasp of mathematical principles, but he finds writing frustrating: especially the writing in public school that requires him to churn out a daily essay on a (usually) very stupid subject. For months, his essays came back with exactly the same criticisms on them. It only slowly dawned on me that the teacher thought that this repetitive criticism was the way to teach him how to write correctly. I stepped in and, in three weeks, while he still bitterly resents the mindless topics, his writing has improved dramatically, as demonstrated by the teacher's effusive comments on his work. I have to laugh, though, when I think that my behind-the-scenes efforts probably mean that his teacher believes that, just by repeating the same criticism over and over, she has finally encouraged my son to do it right!

All of which gets me back to the nice little boys I introduced at the start of this essay. Neither in their homes, nor in their schools, do they ever seem to have been exposed to any learning techniques at all, whether the superior technique of ensuring understanding before embarking on drills, or the lesser, but still effective, memorization techniques used at a quality public school. The approach these boys have to knowledge acquisition is simply to sit there and let it wash over them, with the hope that something will periodically stick. This passivity is intriguing because, presumably, as public school attendees, they're getting the same curriculum as my children -- but they're not learning how to learn.

I suspect that, for public school children, the big factor isn't the school, it's the home. That is, while there's a huge difference emotionally and socially in requiring a child to go to a rundown, dangerous urban school, as opposed to a spiffy suburban school, the real difference in learning doesn't take place in the classroom, but takes place with, or because of, Mom and Dad.

The parents in my affluent community are just like me: when they see the manifest gaps in understanding that a public school education leaves behind, they step in with lots and lots of help. If the teacher's methodology didn't, or couldn't, explain the steps for adding fractions, Mom and Dad will step in, either directly, or by hiring a tutor. If the teacher, driven by a cast iron curriculum, doesn't have the time to stop and teach principles of paragraph construction to the kid who didn't get it the first time, she doesn't need to worry, because Mom and Dad will take care of it. That's not happening in poor, neighborhoods. Mom and Dad often aren't around to fill in the gaps, and, even if they are around, they themselves don't have the language or education skills to help out, and they certainly don't have the money to hire a posh tutor.

None of the above is meant to be a criticism of the families in poorer neighborhoods. It is meant to be a criticism of the way we keep both throwing money at failing schools, and imposing more and more test requirements, in the belief that these things will magically fix the children's learning deficits. I think the teaching methodology is inherently flawed, in that it stuffs children with facts and rules like geese being readied for the pate machine.  Simply beefing up this fact-stuffing approach won't matter in the poorer neighborhoods. What would matter, and what could be done without demanding ever more money, is to adjust the curriculum to help children understand what they're learning and then to give them the tools to teach themselves. While they might master less material, they'll actually learn what is put before them, and they will embark upon a lifetime of knowledge acquisition, no matter the situation in which they find themselves.

*Note that technically speaking, the numbers zero and one are not considered prime numbers. Thanks to reader August Reinig for this information

Bookworm is the pseudonym of a crypto-conservative in deep blue America. She blogs at Bookworm Room.

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