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Inspiring Children

Children love knowing, but they seem to hate studying. Why is that?

It might be that we are not thinking about knowledge the way they experience it. Here’s a long reflection I engaged in this morning about some distinctions that I consider important. It’s a response to a question on Susan Wise Bauer’s amazing forum, but it was too long for that site.

It might help you plan your teaching and frame your own thinking to distinguish between two kinds of knowledge:

  • Conventional
  • Natural

Natural knowledge is knowledge of things as they are. It’s what we get first, but it’s pre-verbal, so it’s hard to measure and identify. But it’s what humans love because it is personal and direct.

Conventional knowledge is knowledge of what humans have come up with to record the knowledge of things as they are, or often to dissemble. In other words, names. People don’t mind having this knowledge, but they don’t value names for animals they don’t play with.

Let me explain that a little and see if I can connect it to your original question about inspiring children.

When you and I think about knowledge, we almost always have in mind names for facts. For example, we think about the civil war in 1861-1865. The Civil War is a fact. That it took place in 1861 – 1865 is another fact.

But if you think a little harder about it, you realize that in fact that “Civil War” is a [B]name[/B] that we give to an event that occurred in the past. The proof that it is a name and not the fact itself is that people can refer to it by other names, such as “The war between the states,” or “the war of the northern aggression” etc.

Hold on to that distinction between a fact and a name, and let me draw an analogy.

If you tell your child that a dog in a picture is named Rex, do you think she would care or remember for very long? The answer, I would suggest, is, “It depends.”

So what does it depend on? More than anything, it depends on whether she knows the dog personally. If it is her own dog and she loves it, she’ll remember. If it is her friends dog, she’ll probably still remember. If it is a dog in a book like those Lewis describes at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (“of fat foreign children doing exercises” – ie of decontextualized factoids that give superficial contacts with irrelevant things), then she won’t.

Why not? Because she doesn’t know the dog.

Now push it a bit further: if you were to give your daughter a dog for Christmas, do you think she would care about its name? When do you think she would care the most about its name? The week before? Six months before? After receiving it?

My guess is that at six months she would care, but not as much as at one week, and nowhere near as much as when she had the puppy in her hands.

The reason is because knowledge, classically understood, and especially as understood in the Christian tradition, is always personal. But school makes knowledge impersonal. It reduces it to names without puppies.

Look at how the Lord had Adam name the animals: they came to him and then he named them. He didn’t give them a list of names.

This would have given Adam quite a challenge with his own children. He would have been interested in the names because he had to come up with them. That challenge aroused his interest (inspired him). But how was he going to get his kids to care?

The good news for Adam was that God had given him the pattern. 1. Order all education to his purpose as a human, which is to steward the creation as its high priest. 2. Prepare the environment before putting the student in it so that the environment itself draws out what the student needs to fulfill his purpose. 3. Provide challenging tasks without a whole lot of detailed instructions so that the student has to discover and develop his own faculties and skills. 4. Provide tasks that reveal to the student his own inadequacies and his need for suitable partners. 5. In a specific assignment, when knowing and naming is the goal (as it almost always should be), draw out the students mind by challenging him to do the naming, which will require attention and will arouse interest.

I think the most common mistake we make as teachers is to confuse the name with the fact. Kids love to know facts, but they don’t like disembodied names.

Two very important qualifications:

Sometimes they just need to show the discipline of obedience and memorize the names so they can benefit later.

I am using the word name here in a very broad sense. Names can be a great deal more than just a word. A name is a symbolic representation of an actual thing. But that symbolic representation could take place in other ways than mere words. For example, you have given your children names, but you also, no doubt, have pictures of them. That picture is also a symbolic representation. If you are a musician, you might sit down at your piano one night and compose a tune that embodies in music your perception of your child. You might write a poem about her. All of these are, using a somewhat expansive definition, names.

In other words, we are artists by nature and the main thing we do as artists is name things. So when we are teaching children, we are always teaching them how to name things.

But you can only rightly name something that you accept into your soul and you will only accept something into your soul if you approve of it.

And that takes us full circle back to the original question. How do we get our children to approve of what we want them to accept into their soul.

Here’s the magic truth: children/humans love to know things personally. Let them know the puppy before they have to remember its name. Or at least get the name of the puppy as close to the truth of the puppy as possible.

Puppies are truths.
Names are ways we remember and order them.

The distributive property is a puppy. Before they get that long name and its abstract definition, show them that they have already been playing with it and that it is fun to play with. Then name it – or even let them come up with a name. You could use that name for a while and then tell her what other people call it later when she better understands what it means to distribute things.

The readiness is all.

That a sentence is a complete thought is a puppy. That every sentence has a subject is a puppy. That every sentence has a predicate is a puppy. That you can’t think of a subject without giving it a predicate is a puppy.

This little litter makes up the foundation of everything you need to know about grammar. These puppies will grow up and bear lots of additional litters, but if your poor child has to raise all those additional litters without ever having got to know those first puppies, they’ll be lost in a thicket of names that will drive them nuts and, frankly, make them frustrated and angry. And because little children aren’t allowed to get angry at their parents, they will get angry at themselves.

Every subject is made up of puppies that children love to play with. As much as you can, let them play with the animals so that the names are invested both with meaning and love.

I know this doesn’t make your job easier, but it at least makes it possible. And as you figure out ways to do this, you will love teaching your child more and more because your child will love learning.

This was long (sorry) so let me summarize:

* Distinguish names (symbols that represent truths) from things or truths.
* Recognize that it is the thing or truth the child loves by nature.
* Use names to call (ie remember) and take care of (ie sort and use) truths learned.
* Put the act of naming as close to the act of “playing with” (ie studying, experiencing, perceiving actively and attentively) the truth as you possibly can.
* Let knowledge mature and breed more knowledge, but don’t ask for mature knowledge in an area where it was never immature.

Now that I am done I fear I have thrown a bunch of names at you and not let you play with the puppies first. If so, please pardon me and ask me questions about the puppies that ran away.

Blessings on your teaching,


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