Writing and Understanding
Several weeks ago, in my article "Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding," I stressed the crucial connection between writing and understanding:
For the student to write explanations, in complete sentences, about every subject—whether history, literature, grammar, math, or anything else—requires that he have a true understanding of the concepts at hand. But he can often do well on multiple choice, matching, or other rote exercises with no real understanding.
Let me elaborate on this topic.
If a student's understanding of a given idea is genuine, if he holds the idea independently and clearly sees its relationship to reality, then he can offer reasoned support for his view. In asking the students to write paragraphs and essays in every subject, we are able to emphasize this crucial aspect of thought—we demand that they give reasons for their assertions.
Far from the "every opinion is sacred" attitude learned in most all of today's schools, our students learn that "any unsupported opinion is sacrilege."
Several years ago, some of our older students were asked to write an essay about their opinion of school uniforms. Word about this assignment got around, and some younger students became concerned that this was a policy we were giving serious consideration. They complained to their parents, who agreed to come and discourage me from requiring uniforms.
Apparently, these 9 and 10-year-old students told their parents, "Now don't just go in and state your opinion about school uniforms. You have to be prepared with clear reasons for your view."
Knowing that their parents had not attended VanDamme Academy, they feared this was a lesson they had not learned.
The fact that the students are universally required to support their abstract assertions means that the teacher is always able to discover how they hold those abstractions. The teacher learns not just whether the child recalls the abstract conclusion, but why he believes it is true.
Often, the child's explanation will reveal an error in thinking. This gives the teacher an opportunity both to correct this particular error, and to point to the principle that will allow him to avoid this category of error in the future.
For example, several years ago I taught the play The Admirable Crichton, and after reading and discussing the play, I asked the students to write a description of the essence of each of the main characters.
I made an interesting discovery: they thought they understood the characters, having heard my lectures about them. But rather than giving examples to support their character analysis, many simply repeated the abstract point.
The restatements were sufficiently different from the original point that they felt like they were justifying their assertions—but in fact, they were simply saying it again, in different terms.
For example, one would assert that Ernest was self-absorbed, and then, in support of this assertion, would say, "If he had a smile on his face he was probably thinking about himself."
Another, in support of the view that Lady Mary was "condescending," would say, "She thought others were beneath her and not worthy of her time."
This seemed to reflect both a failure to really understand the characters, and a failure to grasp the point that an assertion must be grounded in facts.
I had to make clear to them that what constituted proper support of their conclusions was concrete examples of the characters' actions in the play.
I decided to illustrate this point in a memorable form. I walked into class and (making it clear that this was an exercise, and intended to prove a point), I said, "One of the teachers at this school must be fired." Following my lead, they asked "Why?"
I responded, "Because he can't be trusted." Again, they said, "Why?" I replied, "Because you can never count on him." Again, starting to get the point, they said, "Why?" and I said, "Because he is never there when you need him."
I then asked them what was unsatisfying about my explanations, and they identified that I never in fact mentioned anything the teacher had done to warrant this evaluation.
I then applied this issue to their analysis of the characters in the play. This made it possible for them both to gain a real understanding of the characters and to learn a valuable epistemological lesson.
This lesson was only possible because of the conceptual, objective approach of the class—because I had asked them to write a clear and supported statement of their ideas.