Experiences Encourage Emergent Learning
Children and adults need to bring meaning to the printed page to get meaning from that page (K. S. Goodman, 1996; Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2007; Pressley, 2002b; RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). Without some relevant experience or some personal meaning, much of the message that we read will be lost. Written words can extend our understanding, but they must build on an existing understanding. The common reaction of most adults who begin to read an article that is too technical—one that deals with unfamiliar facts and concepts—is to put the article aside. Adults and children tend to enjoy reading about the adventures of others that are similar to their own.
Writing also requires experiences so that the author will have something to write about. Even authors of fiction are told to write about what they know so their writing doesn’t fall flat. Likewise, children are uninspired to write unless they have something of personal interest to share.
Even more than adults, children need to build on personal experience in their encounters with written and oral language. What we know about how young children think and learn, thanks to the work of Jean Piaget, tells us that children are much less able than adults to conceptualize ideas from mere words. Primary-grade students as well as preschool children, all in the preoperational stage, require concrete-level explorations to develop understandings. When youngsters interact with real objects, they begin to think about them and develop their understanding.
Educators must make the distinction between constructing knowledge and learning facts. An adult can tell a child facts and that child can memorize and repeat them, but such a performance does not imply understanding or necessarily involve thought. Although facts may be part of a complex understanding, they are not the same thing. Construction of knowledge involves higher level thinking based on analysis of series of facts or events. Young children especially need firsthand experiences to encourage the hypothesis and experiment cycle of constructing knowledge (Piaget, 1973).
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