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Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
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Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?

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Educational articles,student,teacher,school,learning,student can imagine,Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine

Educational articles,student,teacher,school,learning,student can imagine,Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine

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  • 1. Start with What theStudent Knows or withWhat the Student CanImagine? It is almost universally accepted among educators that the best way to present new material to students is to connect it to what they already know. Mr. Egan questions this principle and suggests that students' imaginations might offer a much more fertile starting point for learning. By Kieran Egan IT IS COMMONLY argued that one of the securest findings of educational research is that new information, to be best understood, must be attached to knowledge the student already has. Formulations of this finding have been various, but it has been a staple of educational thinking from the time of John Dewey -- and before him of Herbert Spencer -- to the recently published National Research Council monograph How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice.1 I wish to suggest that the common principle of "starting where the student is" may be both inadequate and restrictive in ways not often discussed. In its place, I suggest we might sensibly adopt a second principle of "asking what the student can
  • 2. imagine." We can pose this question at any point in the learning process as a starting point for further inquiry. To show the long influence of the first principle, consider its early articulation in the work of Herbert Spencer and its use by John Dewey and others in shaping the curriculum -- in particular in giving a foundation for the social studies curriculum. Spencer argued that children's early and simple experience had to form the basis for all future learning and that there must be a regular and orderly progression from what is already familiar to what is slightly less familiar -- an expansion "by slow degrees to impressions most nearly allied."2 This principle is believed by nearly every teacher and professor of education I have encountered. Most people assume that it is so obviously true that even to question it suggests a degree of nuttiness. The education reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries encouraged teachers to rethink their ways of presenting new material to students in their particular disciplines in accordance with this principle. Thus elementary mathematics would begin from the experience that children had with fruit or with games such as marbles, and language studies would begin with the forms of expression with which children
  • 3. would already be familiar, rather than with a topic like abstract grammar. But subjects such as mathematics and language were still not fully articulated with the meaningful daily interactions of children with their local environments -- "what the student knows." What was further proposed was a new, central curriculum area -- the social studies. This was to be a subject that would begin with the material of children's everyday experience -- with themselves and their families and with their neighborhoods and communities. Gradually, student learning would expand from this meaningful core of personal experience to less familiar knowledge, until, in the end, the whole universe of knowledge could be understood as an expansion from what was most vivid and meaningful to the child. The social studies curriculum was designed to tie all the knowledge being learned in other curriculum areas to the child's experience. So we must start with what is most profoundly known by the student and build new knowledge on that basis. David Ausubel declared, "If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly."3 Apart from this
  • 4. slightly odd way of putting Spencer's principle, I think there are four reasons why we might be wary of accepting it. • First, if this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin. • Second, if novelty is a problem for human learners, reducing the amount of the novelty doesn't solve the problem. And if we can manage some novelty, why can't we manage more? Perhaps Spencer's "most nearly allied" is far too conservative. • The third objection is less directed at the principle than at the way it has been invariably interpreted in education and particularly in the construction of the elementary social studies curriculum. It is assumed that what children know first and best will be the details of their everyday social lives. That is, it is assumed that children's thinking is simple, concrete, and engaged with their local experience. But, as I will elaborate below, children also have imaginations and emotions, and these, too, connect with the world. If children's minds are supposed to be restricted to the everyday details of their social lives, why are they full of monsters, talking middle-class rabbits, and titanic emotions? We cannot sensibly explain Peter Rabbit's appeal in terms of its "familiar family setting"4 when it
  • 5. involves a safe forest, a dangerous cultivated garden, death so close, and so on. • Fourth, and this appeals to old-fashioned intuition, a few moments of reflection should make clear that no one's understanding of the world expands according to this principle of gradual content association. Now, given the almost universal acceptance of this principle and the fact that these four reasons will have little impact on most of those who believe it, I should add what seems to me the reason such ideas survive so tenaciously. The principle survives because, like many such knowledge claims in education, it is a mixture of analytic truth and empirical generalization. That is, at some level, the principle is true simply because people define its terms to mean something that can't be other than true. It is understood to mean something like "You don't know whatever you don't know, and if you learn something new, it has to fit in with what you can comprehend." If you don't speak Chinese and are told the solution to the three pagodas puzzle in Chinese, you will be unable to understand it. If you do speak Chinese and know what pagodas are and understand the puzzle and fulfill other prerequisites, you will be able to understand the solution. At this level, the principle is
  • 6. certainly true, but it isn't very helpful. What would make it interesting are reliable empirical generalizations. That is, there should be research showing conditions that constrain learning that are something other than logical truths, and these are not thick on the ground. Well, that's a bit clotted, trying to say too much too briefly. But it suggests why one might come to question the common interpretation of starting where the student is. If we mean it as simply an analytic truth, it is of no particular interest to educators. If we mean it as an empirical claim, as it has been taken at least since Spencer's time, then it is inadequate for the reasons given above. Now let us consider what might be implied by taking seriously the principle of what the student can imagine. For obvious reasons, there has not been much research on students' imaginations, and yet they are clearly central to students' learning. But ignoring the imagination because our research methods have difficulty coming to grips with it is somewhat self- defeating. First, I want to argue that the imagination is the ability to think of things as possibly being so.5 This odd ability, which seems to be most energetically active in our early years, is clearly not
  • 7. some casual, frothy part of our mind's functioning, to be blown away with the growth of rationality. It is a hard-working core of children's thinking.6 Second, I want to look in some detail at just three features of children's imaginative engagement with the world and show how they challenge the principle of "starting with what the student knows," which has had so significant an impact on teaching and curriculum thinking. The first feature concerns the story form, which children engage so enthusiastically very early in life and in all cultures and in all times that we know about. The second concerns the kinds of abstract and affective concepts that give structure to the fantasy stories common across the world -- such concepts as good/bad, brave/cowardly, rich/poor, anxiety/security, and so on, with all the freight they carry for human cultures. The third follows from the content of children's fantasy stories and why they are so full of creatures like Peter Rabbit, a talking, middle-class animal that cannot exist. Clearly, storytellers don't pay much attention to the principle of starting with what children know, in the way that the designers and defenders of the elementary social studies curriculum do. Storytellers might begin boldly with galaxies far, far away and
  • 8. long, long ago, if it suits them, confident that their audience will make sense of the content. They can introduce strange characters and weird situations, like Harry Potter's or Frodo's, as long as they build their narratives on the kind of abstract concepts students are familiar with: good/bad, brave/cowardly, anxiety/security, and so on. Consider how children learn about the temperature continuum conceptually. They begin with the concepts "hot" and "cold," as these are both logically and empirically the first concepts that can be meaningful -- "hot" being hotter than the child's body and "cold" being colder. Then they can elaborate or mediate these concepts by learning the concept "warm," for example. Then they can learn an array of other temperature terms in the context created by the first terms that form the ends of the continuum. Later, they will learn to use abstract terms, like thermometer numbers, to refer to temperature. This procedure, which is very effective in dealing with the material world, creates problems when applied to concepts that have no mediating categories, such as life and death or nature and culture or human and animal. Nevertheless, the world of children's imaginative lives is filled with generated mediations between these logically discrete concepts. If there is nothing
  • 9. between life and death, we invent ghosts that are to "life" and "death" as "warm" is to "hot" and "cold." Between nature and culture, we invent that menagerie of talking middle-class animals that fill the fantasy stories of children and the mythic stories of the world. Something serious is going on here that has little to do with starting where the student is and gradually building on the knowledge the student has -- except if we define these conditions as analytic truths. The connections are made by metaphorical leaps, not by logical connections. This article is a meditation on what aspects of our assumptions about learning and curriculum we might need to give up if we acknowledge the importance of students' imaginations. For teaching, we need not be constrained by trying to make content associations with knowledge students already have, for there are other ways of expanding knowledge. For the curriculum, we need no longer be constrained to tie knowledge to the everyday experience of students, which can be very dreary for them, but can recognize that their imaginations allow much freedom in how they can go about grasping the universe of knowledge. Let me conclude by pointing out the obvious -- that I am not arguing for ignoring students' prior knowledge and everyday
  • 10. experience. Rather, I am arguing that these have been taken as implying greater restrictions on children's learning and curriculum possibilities than is warranted when we consider their imaginative lives. We can start with what they can imagine. ________________________________________ 1. Suzanne M. Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino, eds., How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999). 2. Herbert Spencer, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (London: G. Manwaring, 1861), p. 82. 3. David P. Ausubel, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968), p. 18. 4. Arthur N. Applebee, The Child's Concept of Story (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 75. 5. Alan R. White, The Language of Imagination (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). 6. Mary Warnock, Imagination (London: Faber, 1976).

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