Does 'How?' Matter in Education?

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