The Truth Behind Conceptual Learning

conceptual learning2If It Breaks…I Can’t Fix It

I’ve never been one who has been good with his hands. I’ve always had the hardest time putting things together. This is one of the reasons I pay the extra money to get my child an assembled bike at Christmas, as opposed to one I have to put together, seeing as how I’d like the family to have an enjoyable holiday. The other day, however, I found myself tasked with having to put together a walker-like toy for my 4-month-old daughter. The box read “easy to assemble,” so I naturally thought it would take no time at all. I found myself looking at the directions over and over again, trying to figure out what in the world was supposed to go where. In my desperate attempt to complete the project, I finally threw out the directions and went off the picture on the box. A few hours later, as opposed to the 30 minutes the directions indicated it would take, I had a completed walker. I was so excited to see it fully assembled and felt accomplished.

This got me to thinking about true learning and the concept of learning at a conceptual level. If you were to give me those pieces a week from now, there is no way I could put it together, because I really never understood how to do it in the first place. I was simply able to parrot back the information from the directions and the picture until mine looked like the image on the box. What does this mean when we look at a student’s work? Does it mean that because it looks right, that he/she really understands how to do the work?

To me, this is where higher order questioning can help provide that determination. If someone were to have asked me what the preassembled rubber band contraptions were for, I’d have no idea. I would only be able to tell you that the contraptions were letter C and needed to be attached to legs A and B. In the same way, students may just know that things are done in a certain way and not truly know why. For example, when I was working with a student on equations, I asked how to get rid of a plus 4x, in which the student responded minus 4x from both sides. When I asked her why, she could only say it was because that’s how it is done. She didn’t understand that we were attempting to set it to zero to cancel it out and that we do it to both sides to maintain balance in the equation. Although this may not sound like crucial knowledge, it really is. If students don’t understand the concept of why these processes are in place, they won’t understand something down the road where there isn’t a concrete process.

It’s not only with Math. I thought about our leadership course and the concept of leadership in general. To me, what separates a leader from a manager is that a manager can follow protocol, procedures, and processes to arrive at a specified output based on defined variables. A leader, however, often works from a blank page and goes off script to reach an end goal in the face of adversity. If a person only understands the goal-setting process, but not that concept, does he/she then really understand how these goals are going to be achieved and why he/she needs to do so?

So the challenge I have for myself is finding ways to provide opportunities for students to explain the “why behind the what.” How can I more thoroughly examine a student’s work to see if he/she truly understands a concept at a deeper level? The starting place is to inset the words “why” and “what if.” These simple words open the flood gate of thought from the mind of a student and help pave the way to conceptual understanding.

The challenge to all educators is to determine how we can lead students to this deeper level of understanding on a regular basis and challenge them to embrace the struggle.

Post by Shawn Wigg, Former Lead Teacher and 2014 FLVS Teacher of the Year

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