TITLE: Knowing When We Don't Understand AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 02, 2015 4:14 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Via a circuitous walk of web links, this morning I read an old piece called Two More Things to Unlearn from School, which opens:
I suspect the *most* dangerous habit of thought taught in schools is that even if you don't really understand something, you should parrot it back anyway. One of the most fundamental life skills is realizing when you are confused, and school actively destroys this ability -- teaches students that they "understand" when they can successfully answer questions on an exam, which is very very very far from absorbing the knowledge and making it a part of you. Students learn the habit that eating consists of putting food into mouth; the exams can't test for chewing or swallowing, and so they starve.
Schools don't teach this habit explicitly, but they allow it to develop and grow without check. This is one of the things that makes computer science hard for students. You can only get so far by parroting back answers you don't understand. Eventually, you have to write a program or prove an assertion, and all the memorization of facts in the world can't help you. That said, though, I think students know very well when when they don't understand something. Many of my students struggle with the things they don't understand. But, as Yudkowsky says, they face the time constraints of a course fitting into a fifteen-week window and of one course competing with others for their time. The habit have they developed over the years is to think that, in the end, not understanding is okay, or at least an acceptable outcome of the course. As long as they get the grade they need to move on, they'll have another chance to get it later. And maybe they won't ever need to understand this thing ever again... One of the best things we can do for students is to ask them to make things and to discuss with them the things they made, and how they made them. This is a sort of intellectual work that requires a deeper understanding than merely factual. It also forces them to consider the choices and trade-offs that characterize real knowledge. -----