Wednesday, December 13, 2023

When We Rely Upon Rules as a Replacement for Understanding

It seems that a lot of our neighbors have lately added pets to their lives. Everywhere I go, there are puppies straining at the ends of their leashes, impulsively lurching after an up close sniff of whatever has caught their attention. Often it's me they want to get at. Of course, their owners hold them back, usually apologizing, sometimes feebly saying something like, "Leave it."

Personally, I enjoy when these balls of fluff frolic against my shins, but I likewise know that responsible dog owners teach their puppies to "leave it," especially when the "it" in question is a human being. But for now they are all driven to get as close as they can, to invade my personal space in order to engage their sense of smell. It's part of dog culture, so to speak, which is never more clearly on display than when we're at the off-leash areas where there is no delicacy about nosing into even the most private nooks of personal space. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most dogs don't seem to naturally require, nor do they naturally respect, personal space. It's something about which they must learn.

Although, I wonder if they ever really "learn" it. Sure, dogs can be trained to keep their distance from humans unless invited, but I doubt they ever understand what it's all about. They've learned that their beloved human wants them to keep their distance. They might have learned that there is a punishment connected to forgetting or a reward offered for remembering. They may have even transcended the carrot-and-sticks paradigm and internalized it as "good dog" behavior, but I doubt they ever come to comprehend why. Their brains, being dog brains, are simply incapable of grasping our human concept of the sanctity of personal space, even as they are capable of heeding the "rules" surrounding it.

When it comes to dogs, that's probably good enough, but too often, it seems, we adults act as if this is good enough for children as well. The other day, a child at the supermarket was repeatedly, and joyfully, shrieking in the sort of high pitched way that only toddlers can. His mother shushed him several times, but it only stuck for a few seconds before he would begin shrieking again. Finally, she leaned into his stroller and said motioning toward me apologetically, "When you scream like that it hurts other people's ears." That did the trick: she had given him the why instead of just the rule and his brain was clearly ready to understand. 

This reliance upon rules as a replacement for understanding, especially when it comes to teaching children, is pervasive. Indeed, that's the way mathematics is most frequently taught. Children memorize algorithms that will lead to the correct answer whether they understand the concepts or not. We drill three-year-olds how to sound out words before they're capable of actually reading. This is what standardized tests measure, not understanding, but whether or not certain rules have been internalized. We instruct children in such classroom rigors as walking in lines, raising hands, and sitting on their bottoms, then we wonder why so many of them persist in breaking those rules. So we scold, cajole and punish until they know they must do those things even if they don't understand why.

Teachers are in the business of understanding and understanding must precede algorithms and rules. When a child understands that what he is doing hurts the ears of others, he then understands why he shouldn't shriek inside the supermarket. It's not until a child is capable of understanding that letters and numbers are abstractions that represent words and numbers that he can actually understand reading, writing, and ciphering. It's not until a child's brain has developed beyond a certain level of self-centeredness that they understand that raising hands is a fair way to make sure everyone gets a turn. (I still don't understand walking in lines and sitting on bottoms, except as crude crowd control measures, something in which I've never been interested.)

Sometimes as adults we must rely upon rules because the children for whom we are responsible are not yet developmentally ready for understanding, although whenever we find ourselves relying too much on rules, we must ask ourselves if what we are expecting of the children is appropriate. I mean, if we need rules and algorithms, then maybe the kids simply aren't capable of understanding and we're just, at best, wasting everyone's time. Then all we're really teaching is obedience and I think that's an immoral and dangerous thing to do.

This is why we leave children to their play. This is why we strive to create environments in which they can explore, experiment, question and discover without requiring a slew of adult mandated rules. We want them to start with understanding, in their own way, in their own time, and according to their current capabilities, which is to say their developmental stage. It's only from there that the algorithms and rules will ever make any sense at all.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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