The Road To True Discovery
In life, there are things that we just know. For example, I just know how to jump rope. I didn’t always know, but now I do. I simply know how to play the trumpet, and I simply know my times tables. As educators, we strive for our students to reach that sweet spot of genuinely knowing the topic they are studying. We want them to recall, understand, and internalize the material in a way that is as natural to them as jumping rope.
So the question is, how do we get our students to that point of truly discovering a topic? As an educator myself, I’ve spent many years pursuing this goal with my students. One thing has become clear to me in this pursuit: We have a misunderstanding of the difference between “learning” and “knowing.”
Many people assume that “knowing” is a word that is interchangeable with “learning.” However, I’ve come to find that this is not true. I know, that seems somewhat nonsensical. How can my student know without learning? I would like to propose that the two are entirely different. Each fosters a different approach to topics, a different attitude.
Looking at the definitions of “learning” and “knowing,” we find a stark difference between them.
Learning– the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.
Knowing- done in full awareness or consciousness.
These words, in contrast, reveal a surprising yet fundamental difference: Learning is an acquisition, something that is often lost shortly after. Knowing is complete awareness that can’t be taken away or lost.
The Problem With Memorizing
While learning may be a step towards knowledge, it is not the vehicle that will get our students all the way there. The difference lies in the method and the approach. When we are learning, our most significant mistake is the tendency to focus on memorization. Over the years, I’ve noticed that memorization is relatively temporary. Many students will memorize and only store that information in short-term memory. How often do students forget their times tables only a year or so after drilling them? Think of the last time you were positive a student understood a topic, only to find out that they’ve forgotten shortly after. For some of us, that might often be happening.
A lot of “go-to teaching tools” are designed to store information in short-term memory. While our students may ace that exam, in a year, they might not remember the information. We sincerely want our students to experience a discovery that leads to a deep understanding of the topic. We want this information to become second nature, in the way jumping rope is second nature to me.
So what’s the secret? If learning isn’t knowing, and memorization is only temporary, what do we have to work with?
Practice and memorization are entirely different. Let’s look at the definition of practice.
Practice– the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.
When we commit information to memory, we tend to simply drill the information through flashcards or other forms of memorization. This can get us through the test, but it doesn’t utilize that information’s actual application or practical use. When memorizing, we are merely chunking information together in ways our brain can grasp onto. When we practice, we create neurological pathways in our brains that develop a kind of muscle memory.
Let’s apply the idea of practice in a practical example: times tables. There are many different ways to practice times tables. While flashcards can be helpful to many, they don’t do the trick in all circumstances. So what could you do to truly discover, become fully aware of, and know your times tables? One of my favorite methods is getting your hands involved with a jar of pennies, buttons, marbles, candy, or anything else you have an abundance of. Then, start counting those items in groups.
Why is this different than memorizing using flashcards? By getting your hands involved, you’re not only bringing abstract numbers to life, but you’re also finding other ways to categorize, sort, and become fully aware of the topic. You’re practicing because you are practically applying the information. You are using the data. Flashcards are simply chunking information together in hopes that our brains can grasp the topic.
Teach Someone Else
Another example of truly practicing a topic is to teach that information to someone else. When you have to explain something to another person who doesn’t understand, it forces you to find ways to represent the information. You’re looking for connections and a clear narrative to get the other person from point A to point B. Meanwhile, you’re practically applying and using the information you may have just learned!
For example, let’s say you want to get better at playing chess. One way you could deepen your understanding of chess is to teach someone else how to play. This is a form of practice, a way to apply the theories and methods of chess. Putting on the “teacher hat” fosters knowing by forcing us to master the techniques, methods, and concepts of chess.
Ultimately, practice will look different for every student as they have different needs, learning styles, and abilities. But the power of practicing a concept rather than mere memorization is universal. No matter what your student’s needs are, they will benefit more from practical application than memory-work.
If we reframe our approach to focus on practice and true knowing, we will revolutionize the way we educate.