20 Questions

Children tell us how they learn

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 33
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

MOST OF US still consider real thinking to be a verbal process, one of quantifying objectives, analyzing ideas, and proving hypotheses. This is the type of thinking that is recognized with high marks in school and in society. Different forms of thinking, such as thinking in pictures, thinking in sounds, or body sensations still have not taken their proper position in the realm of serious thought. It has occurred to me that one of the reasons for this is that we don’t give enough attention to how we think.

While thinking about thinking has long been an interest of mine, the stimulus for my current reflections was an incident with Oliver, a young patient of mine who has leukemia. We work together with guided imagery and art.

Oliver had long admired an amethyst crystal I have in my office, holding it and enjoying its coolness. I decided to surprise him with one of his own. One rainy day I brought forth this treasure concealed in my hand and asked him if he wanted to play 20 Questions to find out what it was.

"What’s 20 Questions?" he asked. When I explained that he could ask twenty questions about shape, size, texture, color, sound and use of the object to find enough clues to make a successful guess, he looked at me in disgust and yelled, "You want me to think. I don’t have to think at school, and I don’t have to think at home, and you’re not going to get me to think here either!"

I was surprised that what I considered a game of imagination, Oliver considered thinking.

"You don’t have to think at school?" I asked.

"No, they just give us these dumb papers to do and the same dumb puzzles to put together over and over and that’s not thinking!"

"What about at home?"

"No, I watch TV or I get my parents to do things for me so that I don’t have to think there either."

"And if I ask you to guess the shape, size or color of what I have in my hand, that’s thinking?"

"Yes, and it makes my head hurt."

This short interchange with Oliver and his subsequent delight with the questions he asked (he only needed fifteen), provoked my interest in designing a course on thinking and learning for my children’s Middle School. How many of us as parents or educators ask our children directly how they learn or how they think?

Do you think in pictures, in shapes, in dialogue? Are your daydreams or night dreams thinking? Does your body think? How do you know? When you have to write an essay do you walk through the story in your mind as you would through the rooms of a house? Do you memorize spelling words by taking a mental picture of how they look? Or do you hear how they sound? How do you learn best?

As an educational consultant for both the Ministry of Education in British Columbia and for many private and public schools in California for the last four years, I have had the opportunity to ask some of these questions to hundreds of children. No two answers are ever the same.

"Yes, I do think in pictures," an 8th grade boy replies. "In fact, I take a mental picture of the list of spelling words just before we have a test. And I always get 100%. It’s very curious to me because it’s so easy. Do you think it’s cheating?"

"I always hear the dialogue before I write a story," says a 4th grade girl, "but our teacher talks so much when I’m trying to write that it’s hard to hear what I’m thinking."

"Yes, I always use my daydreams strategically before a meet," responds a 9th grade gymnastics competitor. "The night before a meet I spend time in bed imagining myself going through my whole routine. That way I get to see and feel in my body where I might make mistakes and how I can improve."

These young people are telling us how they learn. Many are aware that they use images, visual, auditory and kinesthetic. They have photographic memories, actively use mental rehearsal, and know they need less teacher input. When I ask them how they learn best, they’re surprised at the question.

"No one has ever wanted to know how I learn before, how I think." "I’ve never thought much about how I think, but I do know that I don’t do any real thinking at school. They make us sit too long to think." Or from another high school student, "They cram too much into the hour; there’s no time to think or to assimilate."

I think that one of the reasons our educational system is ineffective is that we haven’t consulted the real experts about how learning best occurs for them. We know from scholars such as Howard Gardner of Harvard that "we all are born with the potential to develop a multiplicity of intelligences." We have the ability to analyze things as they relate to ourselves as well as to consider whole systems simultaneously and to understand how they interrelate. But how do we do this in school?

The 8th grade students that I have consulted have some interesting observations about how the sense of community, course content, teaching methodology, scheduling, and the interrelationship of coursework with the "real" world affect learning. The following are some of their comments and suggestions about structuring the best learning environments for them.

Community: "I would like to see smaller schools so that there would be a stronger sense of community. Perhaps small schools within the larger school."

"I cared more about learning when I was in elementary school because it was more fun. We need more group projects to bring the class together, like class plays."

Course Content: "I want to learn about different cultures by reading about them and by learning their language. I’d like to visit them, too."

"I’d much prefer to learn math by building things."

"We have to have science so that we understand how the earth was created or evolved, what’s happening to it now, and what’s going to happen in the future."

"I want a good creative writing class that lets me write mysteries and fantasies and takes me to see good plays so that I can hear how others write dialogue."

"I want to learn the history of thought, not only in books but in art, dance, drama and music. We need more art, dance, drama and music."

"I’d like to see a form of meditation in school. Part of the ease I’ve always had in school comes from my ability to relax and go inside in the midst of chaos."

Teaching Methodology: "I want teachers who are interested in my ideas, who can ask questions, who challenge me to think, who don’t have all the answers."

"I’d prefer to learn more by discussion. I learn best when listening to how others think. It helps me clarify my own thinking."

"Letter grades should be eliminated to ease some of the pressure of high school, and teachers should meet with students on a one-to-one basis regularly."

Scheduling: "I don’t like listening first thing in the morning so I’d like Art scheduled first. I learn differently in Art."

"At the end of the day I’m too keyed up so I can’t listen well. I’d much prefer to have a music lesson then or a dancing class."

"I want longer class periods with fewer subjects so that I can study something in depth."

Interrelationship of School and the World: "At least one week out of the year I want to have a job in the community as part of school – just because it’s fun."

"We need more field trips, in the city and in wilderness. I want to know how the world works. I can’t get that from just reading books."

What seems to stand out in all of the children’s comments is that the process of consciously thinking about how they learn, and then consciously creating that learning situation gives them a sense of power – a sense that they truly matter in the evolution of life. Which brings me back to Oliver, who at six had already concluded that he would prefer to get through life without thinking. Before Oliver played 20 Questions, he thought that it was something that made his head hurt. After he got involved in the process of discovery, he wanted to do more.

If we paid attention to how we think, we would ask questions differently. As parents and teachers, we would ask our children not what they have learned, but how they have arrived at the thoughts they have. We would encourage them to develop and expand their natural modes of learning first, so that they could approach unfamiliar modes of learning with a sense of confidence in themselves. Why is it that adults often ignore their own strengths and emphasize their weaknesses? Perhaps the root lives in not having primary strengths validated as a child.

As teachers, we would elicit student input into course content, learning techniques, and student evaluation. As students, we would take the risk to trust our own unique way of learning, to explain to parents and teachers how we learn best, and then to give evidence of that learning. Revitalizing the art of learning involves students, parents, and teachers.