The Whys of Learning

In my experience both inside of and in front of classrooms, students can be broken into three general categories. Those that are simply filling a seat is the smallest group by far, and I’ve never entirely understood why those students are there. This group is not really the focus of my post, though. The last two groups are those that I wish to discuss: the Knowers and the Learners.

Knowers want to know facts…they want to be in possession of knowledge. I envision them as the intellectual version of hoarders. They collect information in a way that is astounding to me. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that would allow me to amass trivia in that way. This shortcoming has been the bane of my existence throughout most of my education. I struggled my way through history, English, and mathematics courses for a long time because of this. Memorizing streams of date-event combinations, completely inane grammatical dictums, or seemingly arbitrary mathematical rules seemed so boring, pointless, and useless.

It is fairly simple to find the Knowers in a classroom. Knowers are the ones that have their heads down as they frantically scribble every word that the lecturer says onto a piece of paper. They are the students whose hands shoot up into the air to waste the valuable time that follows an instructor’s request for questions with the pointless “Will this be on the exam?” They are the students who will argue with an professor over some obscure piece of minutia or semantic quibble on an evaluation rather than acknowledge that there is a fundamental lack of understanding in play. They revel in multiple choice and in concepts being made black and white.

Sometimes, you will find the Knower in front of a classroom, although they are harder to spot.1 These are characterized by educators issuing a barrage of vocabulary and trivia on students. The Knower-Educator will teach ‘to the test’ oftener than not. Closed-book, closed-note, multiple-choice exams are often their mode of evaluation. It is possible to pass one of their courses—to excel, even—and still not understand any of the material at all. In many cases, it is laughably easy to do so, and I certainly made it a habit through much of my K-12 schooling.

Conversely, Learners want to know why the facts are…well…the facts. They want to be able to figure out the facts on their own. They are rarely satisfied with concepts in the form of “A is true, B is false” when there is a chance to learn in the form of “A is true because of X and Y, B is false because of Y and Z” or better still “We know X, and we know Y, what does this tell us? Yes, A!” This is the group I identify with the most. I learn because I want to know more than mere facts. Facts are largely boring things of no consequence in my life. What good is a pile of facts? In what way is my life going to be bettered by knowing the year that the Magna Carta happened2 or the formula for the quadratic equation? I want to be given the reasons for those facts. Given sufficient reasons, I can almost always backtrack and find the fact itself. Malcolm Gladwell has an example in Outliers: The Story of Success wherein a young lady is re-learning how to obtain the slope of a line and runs into a concept that derails many a math student: the slope of a vertical line. By working through the concept of slope, rather than just memorizing the formula, she was able to grasp and understand why such a line would be considered to have no slope3.

Learners are a little bit harder to distinguish, but there are some indicators. Learners will often sit back and watch a lecturer speak. They take infrequent, short notes. They interrupt the class to ask questions. They veer off topic as they make mental connections. They will argue an infrequently seen boundary case endlessly until they grasp why that case doesn’t jibe with the rest. The fact that many of these traits are often found in the group of students who just don’t care makes it hard to pick Learners out. One point of differentiation, though, is questions that begin with “Why” or “How come.” It is no coincidence that the period of our lives during which we are learning the most (and capable of verbalizing) is characterized by repetitions of these two questions, “Why” is the sound that learning makes.

A Learner-Teacher tends to teach in metaphors and examples. They will sometimes deliver new material as a narrative, as if they were sharing a story rather than a concept. Sometimes they will work from theory to practice, other times from practice to theory, but they always find a way to put the theory in there. They often fail entirely to answer a specific question directly, but answer in a series of leading questions; it is my understanding that this can be maddening to Knowers in exactly the same way that rote memorization is maddening to Learners.

I have never understood collecting things. I have trouble throwing things away that I think there’s even an the remotest possibility that I might use, but collecting for the sake of collecting baffles me. I have an extensive collection of books, but I have read (or intend to read) every single one of them. Among those that I have read, I have read most more than once, and intend to read them again. If I don’t expect to read a book (or to revisit it), then I don’t keep it. If I decide at some future time to read something, I can always obtain it through borrowing, a library, or a purchase. I don’t understand owning something for the sake of owning it.

I feel the same about knowing things. I cannot fathom knowing something for the sake of knowing it. I want to know why and how, because with the why and the how, I can open up a vast, boundless expanses of knowledge. I don’t have to memorize the formula for the slope of a line, I can figure it out because I understand how it was derived. If I don’t need the knowledge, I don’t bother with it; I can always look it up later. Anything that is more trouble than it is worth to look up or calculate I will take the time to memorize, but that is a last resort not a manner of learning.

I write about this today because I am frustrated by what I see as a shift in percentage between Knowers and Learners. It seems as though there is an increased focus on knowing fact in classrooms, and it comes at the expense of learning concepts. Every semester, it seems that I sit alongside more and more memorizers and less and less people inclined to work things out. Each class I stand in front of seems comprised less of people asking “why is that true” and more of people asking “will we be graded on this?” Students seem genuinely angry when they aren’t taught ‘to the test’ or when they aren’t presented a list of bullet-pointed facts to memorize and regurgitate like intellectual bulimia. In a time when acting out in classrooms or demanding better grades has become depressingly commonplace, I have seen the toll being taken on fellow instructors by Knowers wielding a sense of entitlement and misplaced senses of righteous indignation.

I don’t really know how to teach to a Knower…well…technically, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I do know how to teach to a Knower, what I don’t know how to do is to teach to both Knowers and Learners at the same time, and I am entirely unwilling to teach to the Knowers at the Expense of the Learners. This is something new that I am learning about myself. The first practical result of this new knowledge is going to be some changes to my future syllabi; the first of which is an addition to my FAQ:

Is this going to be on the exam? The short answer to this is “Yes, if I took the time to put it on a slide or talk about it, it is potential exam fodder.” The more complete answer is this: I do not require you to know many facts, but I do require you to understand concepts. When I am evaluating your understanding of the material, whether that be through assignments or exams, I will be evaluating your ability to use that conceptual understanding in some practical way. For example, I will not ask a C class to list the data types, I will ask which data type should be used for a given piece of data. As a result, yes, everything we discuss is likely to be on the exam, because when you put all of this stuff together, it dovetails beautifully to form a complete understanding of the thing you are learning about. You should probably just stick to the short answer.

I’m sure as I put together a more comprehensive set of thoughts on the subject, there will be many, many more changes.

1 It can be difficult to spot a Knower as an educator because many of the earmarks of a Knower are also found in bad teachers regardless of the sort of learner they are. Learner-Educators often teach like Knowers because they don’t have a better way at their disposal.

2 1215. I can still recite this off the top of my head. I could not, however, tell you what it is, why it happened, or anything practical about it…but even after 20 years, I can tell you when it happened. That, my friends, is being taught by a Knower.

3 No slope, not zero slope. You could also say the slope is ‘infinite’ or ‘undefined’ with equivalent impenetrability to those who do not understand the underlying concepts.