Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Thinking, Learning, and the Having of Wonderful Ideas

The word "education" has two Latin roots: educare and educere. Educare means to train or mold someone and specifically refers to a processes of passing along knowledge from one generation to the next, with the goal of shaping youth in the image of their parents through rote learning and future employment in the economy. Educere, in contrast, means to "lead out," in the sense that we are preparing youth for an unknown future, which calls for thinking, questioning, and creating. The modern word "education" didn't appear in the English language until the tail end of the Middle Ages and was used primarily in the sense of educare, and was largely applied, often brutally, to making peasant youth into compliant workers. By the Enlightenment, however, the word had taken on a meaning more in keeping with educere. And here we are today, arguing over what we want from education.

The lazy answer is to say we want to find a balance, but from where I sit there is no way to balance concepts that cancel one another out. To be well-trained means to be obedient and compliant, which requires the suppression of thinking, questioning, and creating. Thinking, questioning, and creating, in turn, leads to individuals inclined to upset the status quo, which stands in direct opposition to the goal of shaping youth in the image of their parents.

When I talk of education, I am using the word exclusively in the sense of educere. I want my fellow citizens to be thinkers.

For all practical purposes, thinking is indistinguishable from learning. That might sound obvious, but when you look at how school works for most children, you would find that thinking is, for the most part, actively discouraged, replaced by the pursuit of "right answers." No matter how much lip service we give to thinking, coming up with pre-approved answers doesn't require thinking as much as remembering, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but recalling the right answer for a test isn't what most of us mean when we think about thinking. In fact, in the context of right answers, thinking just gets in the way. It leads to questions. It leads, by definition, to the infinite universe of wrong answers, all the possibilities beyond the status quo. And lest we forget, every single one of today's right answers were once wrong answers discovered by students who chose thinking over acing the test.

Eleanor Duckworth, an educator who worked with the great Jean Piaget and who made it part of her life's work to "translate" his work into the classroom, defines learning as "the having of wonderful ideas." And wonderful ideas are neither right nor wrong, but rather rendered wonderful by the mind's eye of the one doing the thinking. A wonderful idea is a living thing, something the compels the thinker to continue to ask questions, to play with it, to look at it from all sides, which is a process that we define as learning. Whether or not it's right or wrong is immaterial: its value is that it becomes a step forward in a child's thinking. This process doesn't lead to right answers, but rather new ideas.

Too often in our schools new ideas are a problem. They don't show up on the tests. They distract children from the approved path. Children with too many new ideas are corrected, even punished, for not simply accepting the right answer. Certainly, a child's thinking might be indulged for a time, but the goal is always to steer them back to the orthodoxy of right answers. 

Educators who understand learning as a process of thinking, questioning, and creating know that our role is not to steer children, but rather to understand them, to, in a way, become Piaget, and take the stand of a researcher. This requires observation and careful, thoughtful listening: to see not wrong answers, but rather theories to explore. Our role is to be with children in a way that allows us to understand what and how a child is thinking with minimal interference. It's this understanding that's important. When we know where a child is, we can better create an environment in which they can pursue their wonderful ideas for as long as their questions remain. The goal is a human who thinks, educere, because thinking is learning, which is to say, the having of wonderful ideas.


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