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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Learning Is Just the First Step to Understanding

As a college professor for many decades, I am always amazed at how so many students pass exams while having so little understanding. If I taught math, it would probably be different, because the task in math is to solve problems, which you can't do if you don't understand how to construct and solve appropriate equations. But for most other subjects, it is amazing how much students can learn with so little understanding.

This problem also exists in the real world outside of academia. Opinions masquerade as fact. “Facts” are often asserted without evidence-based reasoning. Facts are presented out of a context that would otherwise promote understanding.

In school matters, teachers don’t seem to emphasize the importance of evidence and reasoning. Educational knowledge and skills standards used by all the states focus on conclusions, with little regard for how such conclusions are justified. Conclusions are presented to be memorized. Testing rarely focuses on the reasoning that constructed the conclusions.

In the k-12 teaching of history, for example, students may not learn the right lessons about our government. Numerous polls uniformly have revealed that the typical high school graduate has very little understanding about U.S. history. School history textbooks are roundly criticized for inaccuracy, bias, and omissions, especially omissions of context. I have verified this in conversations with my grandchildren. The young people I talk to know nothing about explanations for the form of our government in the Federalist Papers or the reasons for many of the events that happened in U.S. history. Students have little appreciation for how creative the ideas in the Constitution were at the time and how they have had at least some impact everywhere in the world. They may have very little understanding about why WWII was so important.

In the teaching of biology, evolution is presented as a theory widely accepted by scientists, but with much less emphasis on why they believe it. It seems like too much trouble to explore the scientific observations over the centuries that lead to an inescapable conclusion that life forms do evolve. Why they evolve was the hallmark of Darwin’s work, but somehow this tends to get lost in the conclusion that they evolve or assertions that the theory should not be believed.

In the teaching of neuroscience, with which I am most familiar, students memorize what neurons are, how they generate electricity, and communicate with each other, with much less attention to what this all means in a larger sense of mental health and meaningful living. For example, students may conclude that humanity resides in a late-term fetus without knowing why such a claim can be made on neuroscience grounds. Students may memorize which parts of the brain light up in a brain scan under different conditions without the slightest idea of how misleading and uninformative such information may actually be.

In science in particular, the “why” and “how” are often more important than the “what.” I remember as a graduate student that my major professor rejected my research findings until I could find an explanation for the results. It is not enough just to know.

The larger point, of the need to understand the factoids you are learning, applies in all aspects in life: school, workplace training, and relationships with people of different backgrounds. In everything we read or hear, we should get in the habit of asking ourselves certain questions:
·       Do I understand what this means?
·       What are the limitations of this information? Where could be wrong or incomplete?
·       How much can I learn from it, not just of it?
·       What are the implications of this information?
·       To what good purpose can I put this information?

Understanding is much more demanding and valuable than just knowing. I might add as the "Memory Medic" that this perspective on learning makes it easier to remember what you learn. The best way to remember factoids is the thinking required to understand them.

"Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

  • For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
  • For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
  • For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
  • For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site:

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Case for Informal Language in Teaching and Learning

Far too many students find schoolwork to be boring. There are multiple reasons, but a main one is that academic instruction is typically framed in plain-vanilla, academic language and style. In the teaching of science, this is the dominant style of teaching. Knowledge is packaged like Wikipedia posts.  Informal and picturesque language is typically verboten. Science instruction dumps information on students with the implicit statement, “Here, you must learn this.” Science teachers tend to talk at students; they do not converse with students. Academic language does not sparkle; it dulls the finish of ideas.

The high priests of education promote formalism because it seems more impressive and more authoritative. Students, however, live in their own world of distinctively informal language, and teenagers are notoriously resistant to authority. They certainly do not find it appealing to read or listen to instruction expressed in rigid academic style.
Most teachers teach the way they were taught. They were taught what and how to teach by academics, who inevitably communicate in academic style, because that is the way they too were taught. You would readily understand that if you have read as many education doctorate theses as I have.

Every-day language includes informal and picturesque literary devices that make communication more entertaining and engaging. The most common device is the use of metaphors. While a traditional view of the purpose of metaphors is to decorate and embellish language aesthetically, and therefore superfluous to instructivist  modes of teaching, it is clear that metaphors serve useful functions in aiding motivation, understanding, reasoning, creative imagining,  and persuasion. Good metaphors make instructional content vivid and relatable to what students already know. As with all forms of instruction, the metaphors should resonate with the existing culture and experience of the learners.

Metaphors help students verbalize abstract concepts that would otherwise be too complicated for the learner’s current state of competency.  Metaphors teach what it means to be fully literate. Good metaphors stir positive emotions, and such emotions powerfully motivate students. Critical and creative thinking often depend on analogical reasoning. It is not particularly useful to quibble over the technical difference between analogies and metaphors. We can legitimately think of all metaphors as analogies.

Metaphors help students leap across the chasm of ignorance from what they know to what they do not yet know. Metaphors can help students feel more at home with new ideas, especially abstract ones that seem strange and alien to them. A special advantage of metaphors is that they provoke reflection while at the same time making memorization easier. Metaphors help students see relationships of concepts, while at the same time stretching their thinking to discern where metaphors break down. In line with constructivist pedagogy, metaphors acquire special power when teachers ask students to construct their own metaphors for new learning material. Constructing metaphors is a creative process; requiring it of students teaches them how to be more creative.

All of the properties of metaphors just described have obvious importance for making teaching more effective. Some teachers may resist the use of metaphors, because they assume that children do not have the mental capacity to appreciate and understand them. While it is perhaps true that understanding metaphors requires intellectual development, that alone is reason enough to use metaphors to help children develop their intellectual capacity. Besides, children are naturally attracted to metaphors, as evidenced by their strong interest in stories, fables, fairy tales, and the like. What greater evidence of this point can there be than the common observation that children who don’t like to read will spend hours devouring Harry Potter books?

We associate the use of metaphors with great literature. But metaphors are clearly useful in science. The beneficial effect of using metaphors to teach science is well established. Metaphors can be central to scientific discovery. The most famous examples of how metaphors stimulate discovery are found in such examples as the continual use of metaphors by Kepler in his various astronomical discoveries. Then there is Harvey’s comparing the heart to a pump; Huygens’ discovery of the wave-like nature of light; Einstein’s understanding of relativity in terms of riding on a beam of light; Kekule’s discovery of the benzene ring; and Darwin’s ideas of phylogenetic trees (which he more appropriately thought of as bushes). Today, we think in such terms as ribosomes as protein factories; mitochrondria as the cell’s powerhouse; the eye as a camera; the immune system as bodily defense; the genetic code as editable; the brain as a computer; the brain’s limbic system as reptilian brain; nerve impulses as trains of impulses; short-term memory as working memory; thought as movie-frame streams of consciousness; and so on.

In his book on using metaphors in teaching, Rick Wormeli explains to teachers that metaphors can help them walk in their student’s shoes. He gives advice on how to develop new metaphors related to instructional content and to teaching students how their understanding benefits from recognizing the literal limits of metaphors. He has found that metaphors greatly assist in generating those magic eureka moments when students say, “Oh, I get it now!”

A group in Spain uses metaphors in the teaching of English as a second language. They teach metaphoric awareness in a business course as a useful device to raise awareness of key concepts, models and issues and to improve their reading and translating skills. They introduce students to a series of specific metaphor examples as they relate to the conduct of business. They teach that metaphors have a “source” and a “target,” with a direction of the connection between them. They base learning exercises on questions in a variety of formats.

Another teaching approach with metaphors is used in life-enhancement coaching. One coach claims that his clients not only help clients grasp the meaning of his advice, but also help them shift perspectives, gain insight, and solve problems. His clients often use metaphorical language to describe their issues and problems, but need help in probing the usefulness of their own metaphors. For example, he begins by asking clients what they think their metaphor means. Then he shows them how to probe and develop it with the objective of helping them move forward to a new way of thinking about dealing with their issue or problem. This coach studiously tries to avoid misuse of metaphors, such as using metaphors that are mixed, clichéd, ambiguous, unfamiliar, over-extended, or near-literal.

A case study on the use of metaphors in formal teaching examined the impact of observing classes and interviewing both teacher and students. Teachers used metaphors based on common sense and the culture and language of the students. All parties valued the use of metaphor.

Another case study revealed that creating visual metaphors had a unique potential for improving recall of information. This finding surprised the authors. They should not have been surprised. Scholars of mnemonics have long known that creating visual image metaphors is the most powerful way to memorize.

One group of schoolteachers teaches about microbes by constructing a Sherlock Holmes detective scenario. Another group of teachers has even constructed a web-site library of lesson plans based on metaphors and similes. Educational games are often metaphors.

These multiple examples and studies provide strong evidence that the use of informal language and metaphors motivates learners, and improves their engagement, understanding, memory, and creative abilities.

To learn more about Dr. Klemm's ideas and activities, check his web site at

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