Friday, August 1, 2008

UbD Chapter 2: Understanding Understanding

"Zathras understand. ... No. Zathras not understand, but Zathras do. Zathras good at doings, not understandings." --Zathras, Babylon 5

This chapter brought to light a depressing fact about modern education: most students who are "good at doings", as Zathras would say, are not "good at understandings." They have collected facts in their heads, but they don't know what they mean, and questions that present them with the opportunity to use their facts and skills in novel ways often leave them staring blankly at the page. The emphasis on loading students' brains with as many facts as possible only makes the situation worse. "Teaching to the test" can help students to regurgitate the right answers on command, but only if the questions that they face on the test are exactly like the questions they've seen before. This is why so many students hate story problems: they point out the fact that the student never understood what he thought he knew.

The listing of common misunderstandings in this chapter was somewhat unsettling for me, because it revealed some of my own misconceptions. I'd had no idea that Impressionism was an attempt to be more realistic, to convey the raw sensory impact of a thing rather than the emotional or mental response that the thing engendered in the artist. I've often thought that history classes were almost useless because they consisted of bombarding students with an endless procession of facts, which could easily be looked up in an encyclopedia if they were actually needed. The idea of historian as "storyteller," putting events into any of several possible narratives that might "explain" these events, is one that runs rather contrary to my instinct that there should be one "true" reason or explanation for why things happened. I can only imagine how many similar misconceptions people in other fields must have about my area of study.

The one part of the chapter that jumped out at me the most, though, was the section about understanding the phenomenon of misunderstanding:

"Misunderstanding is not ignorance, therefore. It is the mapping of a working idea in a plausible but incorrect way in a new situation. ... Paradoxically, you have to have knowledge and the ability to transfer [i.e., to apply it in new situations] in order to misunderstand things. Thus evidence of misunderstanding is incredibly valuable to teachers, not a mere mistake to be corrected. It signifies an attempted and plausible but unsuccessful transfer. The challenge is to reward the try without reinforcing the mistake or dampening future transfer attempts." (p. 51)

This section was a wake-up call for me, because I used to get very frustrated at my college students who would return garbled and nonsensical answers to my quiz questions. "They soak up all of this information and then spit it back out like a random comment generator," I would sometimes complain to my fellow TAs. "They just aren't thinking about what they're saying!" The irony, of course, is that they were thinking, but they hadn't arranged the facts into the correct framework. Like a Rube Goldberg machine with the parts in the wrong order, they were failing to get the desired output, but it wasn't for lack of trying. It's a distinction that I'm going to have to be more aware of when I teach my 9th graders -- and I'll have to be patient with them, to acknowledge and refine what George Leonard calls "the approximations of the correct technique", while helping them to make the necessary adjustments to their thinking.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

I loved the quote you chose. In the last few years, I have become more and more fascinated by student misunderstandings. There is a great quote by Lee Shulman where he says that a math teacher should say to him/herself, after a student gets a problem wrong, "What would be going on a student's head that this is the answer the student came up with?" In other words, what was the process their thinking went through in order to come up with this response? I love hearing students explain what is going on inside their heads. (I mean, up to a certain point...;-)

Hold onto this thinking as much as you can. It becomes hard, in the midst of a rough day of teaching, where you're dealing with teenage angst and issues, to remain committed to being interested in student misunderstandings. Not impossible by any means. Just hard...