The PROCESS of acquiring knowledge

A great deal of attention is rightly being paid to curriculum development in K-12 schools at present. Administrations and teachers are putting a tremendous effort into aligning their teaching with common core standards, evaluating and improving assessments and feedback, and looking for ways to ensure that students are learning effectively. However, we should remember that investigating and enhancing process in knowledge acquisition is vital to effective knowledge acquisition.

Here are some ideas in process enhancement:

(1) Building self-confidence
(2) Developing independent people who are able to think independently
(3) Showing specific ways how to think in a formalized manner
(4) Using all five senses in learning
(5) Understanding and embracing change itself – concept of intrinsic value
(6) Advanced thinking through thought-provoking questioning

(1) Building self-confidence

Every child needs to know that their opinion is valued. It is critically important for children to have their own opinions, and that they are not merely expressing the opinions of others. They should start thinking about problems and ideas on a daily basis, and consider ideas for solving these problems. I ask every child in the classroom to be busy solving a problem every day. I tell them that I can call on them at any time to hear what they are thinking about.

I explain very clearly to children that they can only get anything they need in life from another human being whether that be a job, a promotion, gaining increased understanding to a problem in school, or in casual interactions. To meet their needs, children need to clearly articulate to another person what the issue is that they are interested in discussing and solving. In order to be successful in human interactions, it is most often beneficial to see the other party’s point of view. To this end, I have students debate issues constantly. Once they have finished a debate, they must immediately turn around and take their opponent’s point of view, and debate from that angle. Successful public speaking gives a tremendous boost to a person’s self-confidence. Being able to do so in a safe, supportive environment only adds to this result.

(2) Independent person

I find imperative for children to think of themselves as independent people. To establish oneself as an independent person, one must be able to make decisions. This, to a large extent, establishes independence. I ask students to make a decision tree of all the decisions they have made in their lives to date. It is important for them to include at least all those decisions that they think they have made from birth to today. I only give them the prompt “born”. Form there, they can develop a tree. On the reverse side of the paper, I give them the prompt “future”, whereupon they proceed to outline all their future possible courses of action.

I feel that children who can conceive of themselves as independent people can think creatively for themselves, and are prepared to attempt to solve all manner of complex issues.

Another project promoting the idea of independence is a technology project. Students use computers to create a three-minute profile titled WHO I AM. This certainly differs from the concept of WHO AM I? which would probably be more appropriate for a college level course. They may use any medium or content to convey themselves to the viewer. Voice-overs of cartoons, Photoshop, iTunes, and Claymation are just some of the ideas they may use. Once children are asked to define who they are, they are again reinforcing the idea of personal independence.

(3) Think in a formal way

All too often, one sees situations in which students are asked to “just think about” an issue under discussion. Thinking can occur in many ways, and it is important to stipulate this fact to younger learners. Brainstorming ideas concerning what comes to mind when viewing a painting by Picasso is a quite different from thinking in a formalized way about how to solve a major world issue such as excessive refuse in modern economies. In the former, spontaneous ideas are very productive while in the latter, thinking in a structured way such as using Descartes’ Theory of Rational Enquiry, is far more useful. Rene Descartes’ theory of Rational Enquiry in its most elementary form postulates several interesting ways to think and work through problems. Firstly, one should not accept any information merely on its face, always verifying for oneself if indeed that information holds true for you. Secondly, that all problems can and should be broken down into smaller ones, and worked back up the ladder until solutions to the large problems become apparent. Lastly, one should always circle back and recheck assumptions and calculations. This leads us to the concept of thinking. Children benefit from actual instruction in what kind of thinking to bring to understanding and analyzing specific issues or problems.

(4) Using all of our senses in learning

In the modern world concept of learning, we have certainly found that learning solely by reading books is insufficient to bring all of our senses to bear on a topic. It certainly does not cater to diverse learners who might not find reading about a topic by itself conducive to their learning style. We have therefore, for example, started using manipulatives in mathematics. This helps students actually ‘feel the problem’. It gives a tactile dimension to a written problem. This brings the sense of touch to a math problem which might otherwise only be read. Having students discuss and solve problems amongst themselves adds the idea of listening and hearing to the equation.

I have introduced the concept of smell mathematics to my students. I assign a number to a particular smell, have the students place the smells in a mathematical structure out on their tables, and ask their classmates to smell the numbers to, for example, two-digit multiplication. In this way, children can add the sense of smell to math! Any perfume or scent manufacturer will tell you that many hours of research and potion mixing goes into this enormous industry. Why not expose children to the idea at an early age?

(5) Understanding and embracing change itself – concept of intrinsic value

Traditionally, the assumption is that people are very apprehensive about change. Since our environments are changing at a rapid pace, I think it just as well to introduce younger children to the concept at an early age. I ask the students to define anything they think changes. I also ask them to outline everything that does not change. We have lively discussions around these topics.

As a measure of something that does not stay the same, I ask students to come up with anything that has a certain intrinsic value in and of itself. After many healthy and heated discussions, we conclude that there is nothing that has a specific monetary value that is fixed all over the world at the same time. Values/costs for everything changes constantly. I point to the prices of commodities, real estate, or the stock market. The only item which has a zero sum value throughout the world on a constant basis is house dust – zero!

(6) Advanced thinking through thought-provoking questioning

In order to get children to think and analyze problems, scenarios, or ideas in a creative way, two concepts have to be in place. Children need to be taught that there are many ways to thinking both formally, and informally. Secondly, children need to face thought-provoking questions that elicit their very best high order thinking.

Many times we have all heard the teacher ask students to just think through a problem. This might be useful when the class is brainstorming a new creative writing piece. However, other forms of instruction and investigation require a more formalized way to think. Teaching a structured way to think infinitely assists the child in having some mechanism to tackle certain kinds of intricate problems successfully. Descartes’ theory is just one such approach.

We have all asked a small child to do addition problems by extending digits on one hand, asking them to count them, followed by extending one to two additional digits and asking for a total. A far more complex problem, yet asking essentially exactly the same question, would be to extend several digits on one hand, and then extending one to several digits on another hand. Now the child has to combine information from two sources. Within this vignette is an essential truth to teaching creatively. Posing creative and well thought out challenging problems is likely to elicit similar responses. Questioning is an essential part of creative teaching. It is not only what questions we ask, but how we ask them that elevates the lesson to a new level. Posing interesting and thought-provoking questions utilizing cross curriculum sources creates an atmosphere ripe for creativity.

An interesting approach to thinking would be to ask students to define something by what it is not, rather than by what it is. For example, defining Abraham Lincoln by who he was is relatively straightforward. He was the President during the American Civil War, and so on. However, defining him by who he was not requires knowledge of all other Presidents of the United States. Similarly, defining an orange by what it is would entail describing the roundish shape, yellow color, and smell! However, defining it by what it is not in the category of fruit would require a larger descriptive capacity and knowledge.