Helping our Children LearnOvercoming intellectual discomfort to increase parent involvement
September 5, 2004
Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society
-John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916
Many of us have stopped living!
Dewey equates education with life, characterizing both as a process of continual growth. Many of us are not alive, because we have settled into comfortable, unchanging habits that prevent us from learning. Our daily routines make us averse to a level of discomfort that is required for learning and growth to occur.
We limit our growth by such thoughts and statements as:
not good at this.
It is these types of thoughts that allow us to settle down into habits that we are familiar and comfortable with. Learning, which Dewey describes as a continual reorganizing, reconstructing [and] transforming, ceases to be a regular part of our lives.
If we are to play a larger role in our childrens learning, then we need to reconsider our own relationship to education, learning, and growth. Deweys conception that education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself is a premise we can use to begin helping our children learn and succeed in school.
Schooling, if it is good, continually forces the student into a condition of intellectual discomfort; and ultimately that discomfort begins with a non-superficial question.
does a tree make its food?
These types of questions require the student to access resources such as textbooks, instrumentation, direct observations or other people (including parents, teachers and peers) to provide an answer. Intellectual discomfort results when the student is unsure where to begin, where to get the resources or how to use the resources once they have them. For example, they may not understand how to extract information from the textbook they are reading. They may not know how to use an instrument or interpret the data that they collect. Intellectual discomfort develops when the students recognize a gap in their knowledge, and the need for a non-trivial approach to answering the question.
Learning and growth occur when intellectual discomfort is overcome through a process of answering the non-superficial question.
Unfortunately, many children are exposed to schooling where the accumulation of information takes precedence over growth. Learning is valued for having an end, such as a high grade or degree; the antithesis of Deweys vision of learning. Having worked with students in various settings I have realized that many schools tend to use a curriculum that begins with answers, as opposed to questions.
For example, instead of being asked, Why did the French Revolution occur?, students are told, The French Revolution took place because . Instead of asking, How does a tree make its food? students are told, Photosynthesis is an important process that takes place in the chloroplasts and results in the production of sugar. This type of curriculum leads to a form of discomfort that is based solely on the students inability to remember an answer when asked to recall it (on an exam, for example). Students are taught to recall information, but learning how to solve problems or answer non-trivial questions is not taught. Students do not learn how to learn and education becomes a superficial activity, stifling true growth. End-driven education, with its focuses on exams and degrees, reduces the learning process to a series of hurdles that must be overcome.
So what can parents do to help their children learn how to learn, appreciate that learning, and ultimately grow and succeed in school?
As parents we dont like to see our children in pain. When we see our children struggling with a math problem, or a book report, or a history project, we want to help. Yet, as I have suggested, intellectual discomfort is not only good, but necessary for learning to take place. How we, as parents, react to our childrens discomfort, makes the difference in whether our child will learn or not.
Giving the answer only provides the student with an immediate relief for his discomfort, but when he is faced with a similar problem in the future he will not know how to solve it on his own.
The other extreme, where we throw up our hands and say something like, I was never good at math, go ask your mother, does two things. First it sends the message that the child shouldnt depend on us for help, and that she needs to find her own resources. Some are very capable of doing so, but others are not. The second message our child hears with this type of dismissal is that it is alright not to learn the material. If my father didnt learn it, then whats the point of me struggling with it?
Successful help strategies bring us back to Dewey's conception of education and our own learning and growth.
In order to help our children learn we need to force ourselves into intellectual discomfort.
We must accept the fact that we may not know the answer. And most importantly we must value the process of overcoming the discomfort and through our action demonstrate to our children that we have not stopped living.
One of the benefits of being a chemistry teacher is that after identifying myself as such, I often get a rolling of the eyes and comments such as, Oh I never understood chemistry. It was such a hard subject. I hated it! I dont remember anything about it, except that something called a mole is important.
But it is exactly this type of attitude that prevents us from helping our children. We must learn the chemistry with our children and ask the questions that they may not know how to ask yet. What is a mole? Why is it important? How do chemists use it? How does it relate to what I already know about chemistry?
In our answer-driven education system good learners remember the answers, but the non-superficial learner understands how to make connections between answers, providing a context for them, and is able to ask the questions that turn intellectual discomfort into a better understanding of the topic. Parents can play a vital role in helping students learn these skills, and applying them to their schoolwork. This is where parents can make a difference. Involving ourselves . . . our experience . . . our skills . . . in our childrens academics can help further their learning, which does not end when they leave school at the end of the day.
In our efforts to help our children grow through better learning, we can also regain our own commitment to continual reorganizing, reconstructing, [and] transforming. We can reaffirm our commitment to living!