Experiences Encourage Emergent Learning (page 2)
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).
Sometimes adults are in a hurry for children to learn. Adults try to speed the learning process by substituting secondhand experiences for firsthand ones. They confuse passive exposure through pictures, films, or lectures with the active learning mode that Piaget’s research told us is especially necessary for children under the age of eight. When these shortcut approaches result in a veneer of superficial knowledge, some adults think that the children have learned a great deal in a short time. However, like the thin layer of wood put on as a veneer over fiberboard, the superficial knowledge isn’t the real thing. Similarly, knowing specific words and actually understanding what they represent are not necessarily the same thing. Just observe the results of youngsters’ overexposure to television. These young children are able to talk about a number of things about which they understand little.
Firsthand experiences and observations take time. We are concerned that more and more teachers report that they don’t feel they have time to spend on these experiences that are necessary for learning to occur (e.g., Lubeck, 2000; Roskos & Christie, 2001a). Preschool and kindergarten children are wasting their valuable playtime (learning time) drilling literacy subskills such as phonics. Authentic learning experiences take time. Betsy has to pour the water from one container to others over and over, on many different occasions, before she can understand that a short, wide container can hold the same amount as a tall, narrow one. Even then, the understandings she develops are only beginnings. Sometimes she will temporarily believe an incorrect idea because of her incomplete experience and immature understanding. What a temptation it is to rush in and explain to her that she is wrong and tell her the “right” answer. Knowledgeable teachers and parents resist that temptation. They know that Betsy can never figure out for herself what she has been told; she understands best knowledge she reinvents herself. As explained in chapter 1, these adults know that if they tell Betsy that her perceptions of reality are wrong, Betsy will learn only to distrust herself as a learner. If Betsy’s immature view of the world tells her that the tall, narrow container holds more than the short, wide one, no amount of telling her otherwise will help her understand. She will believe the wise adult and believe that she is wrong, but she will be confused and no longer trust her own perceptions or learn through her own thinking.
When teachers and parents encourage children to explore and experiment with their environment, the children build foundations of understanding. They have experiences to think about, talk about, and write about; they expand their vocabulary with meaningful words related to their experiences; and they can relate personally to what others write about similar experiences. Children also gain practice in “reading”—or bringing meaning to a wide variety of experiences. Children learn to read symbols, such as the “Golden Arches,” that relate to their experience. They also learn to read printed symbols with which they have had experience, such as the letters on the red sign that say “STOP.”
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