Where do truth, understanding, and the written word meet?

“Socrates pinpointed our ambivalence towards writing in his story of the Egyptian god Thoth, the inventor of writing, who came to see the king seeking royal blessing on his enlightening invention.  The king told Thoth: ‘You, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess…You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.’ In a late 20th-century world drenched with written information and surrounded by information technology of astonishing speed, convenience and power, these words spoken in antiquity have a distinctly contemporary ring.”

-From the Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson

I find this excerpt from Andrew Robinson’s book particularly poignant in relation to the the jungle of written words learners young and old have to weed through. Never has there been a greater need to develop skills for synthesis, reading for clarity, and critical thinking.  In an age when so much information is buzzing around stimulating our minds almost nonstop, people need to learn how to focus on information they want or need.

How can educators help learners decipher the necessary, the meaningful, the key to texts?  We often say that better readers make better writers.  But what if better writers make better readers?  In learning how to organize their thoughts for clear written expression, in how to use grammar and syntax to communicate exactly what they want to say, developing writers also learn how text can be organized for clarity.  In turn, once they have developed more skills as writers, they develop their skill of reading the writing of others.

There is a separate issue with what the king said to Thoth…the issue of knowledge versus understanding.  This is something educational theorists and practitioners encounter all the time.  What is it to “know.”  If you read about the lunar cycles, have you really understood  them?  What about if instead of reading about them, you spent a whole year observing the moon as a learning community…sharing observations, tracking its path across the sky, its waxing and waning.  If you recorded it every day, its rhythm, its shades and shapes, its journey through the heavens would be connected to your recording hand.  This is what our class did in Eleanor Duckworth’s class, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas: critical exploration.”  Indeed, exploration, in a way that makes the material to be learned as sensorial as possible, lends to a deeper understanding.

The Montessori approach uses sensorial materials that concretize abstractions.  The material gets learners moving and playing with numbers…playing with proofs and truths that manifest themselves in the world.  In this way, learners discover the laws of nature and mathematics through their explorations, before reading about them.

What does it mean to read the formula for a binomial or that there are seasons on Earth?  But to see the actual geometric binomial cube in 3-d, available to manipulate, or to perform experiments that reveal the relationship between sun and Earth–that is to come to a deeper understanding than just merely taking in text.

As educators, to really ensure understanding, we must go beyond the text, to have learners experience truths.  Otherwise, they are simply reading the atomized experiences of others, abstract symbols of knowledge, and there is a great distance between aquiring knowledge and obtaining understanding.

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