Does 'How?' Matter in Education?

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Which
is more important educationally for a child — memorizing a definition
of gravity and its effects on objects both stationary and moving,
or falling off a bike?

In
a previous article (Education:
What's the Point?)
I wrote about what ought to be the end,
or goal, of education. Having concluded that happiness is the end
of human life, even when considering only the natural order, and
that education ought to serve that end by helping students learn
to love what is true, good, and beautiful, we are now confronted
with another fundamental educational question – how can we help
students to learn to love those things? The "how" of education
will necessarily be different for those who believe that acquiring
knowledge, or information, is the goal of education as opposed to
those who believe knowledge is a means to an end.

While
a learner must know of a good thing before he can love it, does
the manner, or mode, of learning about that thing have an effect
upon whether or not — and to what degree — the learner loves what
is good about it? Since schooling begins when people are young let's
begin there. Is the mode of learning in the very young different
from that of older students? If so, should the mode of schooling
differ for the young?

Consider
a person who has never been on a bicycle but has read several books
about bike riding. He has also read books about bicycle maintenance
and repair. He can recite the effects of gravity, momentum, centrifugal
force, under-inflated tires, and crooked wheel rims on a bicycle
carrying various weights at various speeds. He can tell you not
only how a bicyclist maintains balance but also how he can recover
balance when it is in danger of being lost. We might call him a
bike expert. Can we not say that he knows how to ride a bike? Armed
with his knowledge can he climb on a bike for the first time and
ride? Can he tell you how it feels to coast down a long, steep hill
on a frosty morning?

Now
consider a 10-year-old boy who has never read any books about bicycling
but has instead spent hours riding, maintaining, and repairing a
bike. Let's say that he can't explain any of the physics regarding
how his bike stays upright while he rides, or about why his bike
doesn't fall to the ground when he makes it lean over in a turn.
Despite that would you say he knows how to ride a bike?

I
think that each of these people knows how to ride a bike. But they
know it in different ways. If you could know how to ride a bike
in only one of these ways which would you choose? Who knows what
it means to ride a bike — the boy or the expert? Can either
of them, deprived of knowing what the other knows, fully grasp the
meaning of it? We can likely describe in a quantitative way what
the expert knows. We necessarily enter the realm of poetry if we
try to convey what the boy has learned by means of his sensory/emotional/intuitive
way of knowing. Education must take into account the different ways
of knowing, it must integrate the material and immaterial, the quantifiable
and the poetic, because we are beings whose nature is an integration
of the material and the immaterial.

The
expert in this case has come by his knowledge in a primarily intellectual
manner. Apart from the question of which way of knowing, if either,
is better (a good question here is "better for what?"),
what we are more concerned with here is the order of learning. Aristotle
says "wisdom begins in wonder." Who is more likely to
wonder about everything involved with bike riding, the boy who has
ridden bikes or the boy who has not? Who is moved to wonder about
music, the girl who hears it and sings or the girl who does neither?
Who wants to know more about the Milky Way, the child who has gazed
at the midnight heavens or the one who never goes out of the house
but who knows of the Milky Way from books or television programs?

More
important than the question of who will know more about bikes, music,
and the heavens is the question of who is more likely to love what
is good, true, and beautiful in regard to them. Can you love a melody
you have heard about, but never heard?

We
are not purely intellectual creatures. There is an affective side
to our nature. We have passions, emotions, appetites. Though these
must be ordered and governed by our rational faculty, they are good
in themselves and must be taken into account if there is to be a
hope that education can fulfill its purpose of helping us to love
those things that ought to be loved and in the order they ought
to be loved.

This
affective side of our nature is temporally primary in the order
of learning. Until a boy knows what a frog is by experiencing
one with his eyes and ears and hands he is not going to be much
interested in all of the facts regarding frogs. Does your four-year-old
child interact in a primarily intellectual fashion with the reality
he encounters? Does he know you love him by a process of reasoned
analysis of various data? Or does he know you love him because he
has felt it in a hundred different ways? Is his knowledge
of your love any less real, any less sure, because he has come to
it by what he has felt rather than by what he has reasoned to? Is
it, perhaps, even more sure because he has felt it? I say yes. Knowing
it in this way is necessary to later acquiring an intellectual understanding
of it.

Education
for the very young is properly more about a rich sensory/emotional
life, the filling of the sense memory by a life of direct experience
of earth, wind, water, fire, singing, dancing, and plants and animals,
than it is about learning facts, figures, and formulas. You might
get a seven-year-old to memorize a hundred facts about frogs but
until he has been down to the creek to watch frogs, to catch frogs,
he not only will not much care about the hundred frog facts he has
memorized but in a real way he still won't know what a frog is.
Those facts will be without much meaning, disassociated from a concrete
reality.

None
of this reduces the importance of the intellect. Our reason is our
greatest power. Our senses and our emotions are support players.
However, they are foundational and without that which we experience
through them our intellects would have nothing with which to begin
the work of identifying what ought to be loved and to what degree
it ought to be loved. There is a hierarchy of goods. Though there
is much that is good in our family dog [good ol' Ralph!], I am obliged
to love our children more. There is greater good in them.

The
mode of schooling rightly becomes more intellectual, more abstract,
as students grow older. With experience comes a greater ability
to see the universal in the particular, to know the beauty in a
twinkling star and in an act of love and to see the relationship
between them. But learning begins with the senses and it is a mistake,
particularly with young students, to ignore this in favor of more
math facts, more grammar rules, more science data.

A
child who has a well-filled sense memory, along with an imagination
well-exercised and filled with good stories, has a context within
which the facts, figures and formulas he will encounter in his schooling
acquire meaning.

So
if you want your child to understand gravity you might wait until
he has taken a header over the handlebars of his bike before you
explain how gravity works. Not only will he be more interested in
the gravity thing, he'll better understand what you are telling
him. He might even believe you.

August
6, 2005

Steve
Bertucci [send him mail]
is
director of the Western Civilization Foundation’s Great
Books Program
for high school students. He also serves on the
boards of The Angelicum Academy
and The Great Books Academy.
He works with students from grade 3 to adult in online live-audio
classrooms.

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