The Difference Between Knowing and Learning

The day after we took our daughter out of kindergarten to begin the homeschooling experiment that became the unschooling adventure that became the best possible lives the members of our family could ever have, I began to seek out educational philosophies, theories, and practices. Bloom’s Taxonomy struck a chord with me: at age six, I could already see the many ways in which my child was past the first level, simple Knowledge.

An interesting note: Since my last Internet search for the taxonomy, it has been updated to list the levels as verbs instead of nouns. Knowledge, therefore, is now Remembering. The link in the paragraph above includes both versions of the taxonomy. From this point on, I will refer to the new version.

Knowledge, or remembering, is the first step in learning because it gives us the building blocks we will use to proceed to higher levels. One must be able to count before one can do arithmetic operations. One must know the names of the colors before one can learn about how colors are used, either artistically or metaphorically.

At age six, Stephanie (like most six-year-old children) was also quite proficient in the second level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Understanding. Also known as that favorite school-y word “comprehension,” understanding is the ability to explain what one remembers, or has knowledge of. Extremely young children can do this.

Schools, it seemed to me, focused almost exclusively on remembering and understanding—two things that, based on my personal experience, a child could do just fine without any exposure to school. The real meat of Bloom’s Taxonomy comes in levels three through six: Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and—last and best of all—Creating. From day one of life without school, if I were to state educational goals for my child, it would be these, otherwise known as critical thing.

Schools, in my opinion, pay lip service to critical thinking, but the necessary assembly-line aspects of school make it difficult to achieve and, what’s worse, often enable it only within the realm of competition, which, after reading Alfie Kohn’s No Contest, is my filthiest of dirty words.

So, one difference between knowing and learning is that knowing—a skill for which schools and their accomplices, the testing companies, offer high prizes—is actually just a minor component of what life is all about, which is learning. Such abilities as being able to compare, question, defend, satirize, illustrate, and recreate an idea in another medium are the gifts that learning—getting something under your skin, owning it—brings to our lives, and schools try to address these abilities,  but I think they lose any points they gain by then exposing the results to rubrics and grades.

For example, a lesson plan for “Teaching the Compare/Contrast Essay” provides teachers with grueling instructions for explaining the ability to compare and contrast, giving examples of things to compare and contrast, etc., all the way through to proofreading the essay after it’s been written. The way in which the skill—high on Bloom’s Taxonomy and therefore essential to the development of critical thinking—is made to seem apart from real life can be found in the first sentence of the lesson plan: “The compare/contrast essay is easy and rewarding to teach because you can convince students there is a reason for learning it.”

There is so much wrong with that sentence, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s just say that this entire “lesson” happens in real life whenever a person (who might just be a child) discusses her opinions about anything, even whether old Batman reruns are better than old Superman reruns.

Critical thinking occurs naturally in any environment in which human beings feel safe and stimulated—without teaching, convincing, or proofreading. And, yes, I know that proofreading has its place; it’s how I once earned a humble living.

Moving on to what inspired me to write about the difference between knowing and learning, I read an article in The New York Times the other day called “In Praise of Not Knowing.” I urge you to stop reading this blog post right now and read the article. But then please come back here, to read what I have applied, analyzed, evaluated, and created about it.

Oh good, you’re back.

What the writer, Tim Kreider, has done in this article is very important; he has put “not knowing” in its rightful place as a crucial component of learning. Sometimes, what makes something get under your skin is what you don’t know about it. Unit-studying homeschoolers might encourage learning everything you can conceivably know about a particular subject, but Kreider reminds us that knowledge is not necessarily always the goal we should be seeking: “what we cannot find inflames the imagination,” he writes.

In light of the ideas Mr. Kreider brings to the table, I’d like to propose a seventh level for Bloom’s Taxonomy: Appreciating Mystery.  Just as knowledge is not the end-product of learning, critical thinking about some concrete fact or subjective idea is not always an end-product, either. Tim Kreider concludes his essay with this:

Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know.

The things we’re never going to know are things that can’t be assessed in a rubric, but they are things we’re going to be learning about, in some way,  every second between right now and when we die, or maybe after—things that are definitely going to get under our skin. Things that are different from knowledge. As Albert Einstein wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

In those first days of homeschooling, I bought a poster that contains those words. it still hangs on the wall in our home, to constantly remind us of the difference between knowing and learning.

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The Maintenance Mom

Since becoming a mother, almost eighteen years ago, I’ve often thought about how to describe what I do all day. Lots of words come up, but the word I always come back to is maintenance.

The apartment  building I grew up in had a maintenance man; I’m a maintenance mom. Around the house, I take responsibility for the care and upkeep of clothes, carpets, cupboards, cleaning supplies, and an ever-changing variety of household accessories.

Around the heart, I care for sensitive tummies and bad moods,  infected sinuses and anxious minds.

I never wanted to send my child to school. Was it because I found school restrictive and boring and much less interesting than what was happening inside my head? I think so. Was it because I didn’t like what I saw as school’s not-so-hidden agenda to turn my child into the kind of citizen society thought she should be? I think so again. A recent quotation printed in The New York Times  says it for me:

I remember quite clearly one of my middle-school teachers telling me that I was a stone with sharp, jagged edges, but that I would turn into a smooth river stone as I grew older. During the years while I was making this film, I felt like I was getting sharper and sharper instead.        —Zhao Liang, a filmmaker, on “Petition,” a documentary that angered the Chinese government.

I always wanted to raise a sharp stone.

So, with regard to education, I became a maintenance mom, too. For, as Sandra Dodd states,

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling; it’s a way to homeschool. The method is to create and maintain a full-time learning environment in which learning happens at home and away, from as many sources as the family comes across.

I maintain that learning environment. Over the past eighteen years, when people ask me what I “do” (which really means, “What do you do for money?”) my answer has been “I homeschool my daughter.” (The paycheck comes in a different currency.)

I maintain a physical space that is full of books and posters and charts and magazines and pictures and DVDs and CDs and catalogs and games and art supplies. And I maintain a mental space that is full of questions and facts and observations and jokes and opinions. Answers are welcome, but they aren’t required.

The maintenance man at my old apartment building was a respected and beloved figure. He ensured that we had heat and hot water and freshly painted walls. I seek to ensure that we (our family and our country) have  a clear-minded member who exhibits good sense and honorable values.  I feel respected and beloved, too.  Gosh, I really have it all.

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The Boardwalk Diaries: Avon-by-the-Sea

To begin, as Chandler on Friends would say, “Could the name Avon-by-the-Sea be any lovlier?” I think not. “Avon” conjures up Shakespearean sonnets (or coral-colored lipsticks, depending on your frame of reference). “By-the-Sea” is delightful in its hyphenation, and also sounds Seussical or e.e. cummings-ish. There is truly something in a name, and Avon-by-the-Sea wins name point galore.

It is winningly pretty, too. Witness the charm of the seafoam blue benches.

The boardwalk is a bit of heaven, with an unobstructed view of the beach and a feeling that you could be strolling one hundred years ago. Dr. Seuss might have written this about it:

To-be, to-be,

At Avon-by-the-Sea,

Where the pretty blue benches

Line up 1 – 2 – 3,

And the waves go back and forth,

Calling “Whee! Whee!”

Take-me, take-me

To Avon-by-the-Sea!

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The Boardwalk Diaries: Belmar

We can think “boardwalk” and be in Belmar forty-five minutes later.

After parking the car in front of a modest Victorian house on Tenth Avenue, we can choose to enjoy an ice-cream cone from Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (the Jersey Shore shamelessly promotes its affiliation with Bruce Springsteen) before hitting the boards. The streetlights are a nice touch and always make me want  to stay until dark to see them lit.

Except for the car styles, it looks much the same.

As you head toward the Shark River Inlet, the ocean is to your right and parked cars are to your left. Inlets are one of my favorite things about boardwalking: it is bliss to lean against the railing and look down at the rocks on either side of the vertical body of water, and to witness that water’s meeting with the horizontal body of water, the ocean, that stretches out ahead.

The river water is familiar—slightly muddy, with stones and perhaps even fish visible in it—but in a moment it will join the ocean water, which is pure mystery—all movement and rolling, roaring sound.

The lucky members of the Belmar Fishing Club can walk to the end of this long pier and see the ocean’s mystery up close. Even without that privilege, simply looking at the pier is lovely. Again, it’s a vertical/horizontal thing, where the concrete and the abstract combine.

Belmar is pretty, not beautiful; picturesque, not stunning. And that is enough, especially if there is a good breeze, and considering the low, low price of a forty-five-minutes ride.

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The Boardwalk Diaries: Point Pleasant

The first thing that’s special about Point Pleasant is the little community where you park your car. Once you’re off the main road, you find yourself within a grid of streets dotted with small beach cottages—little homes, mostly with gravel instead of grass out front, and flower pots on the porches, and beach towels hanging over the porch railings. You drive up and down the streets until you find an empty spot, and then you begin the walk to the boardwalk. Stephanie can tell you that I always comment on how walking toward the ocean can look as if you’re walking toward the edge of the world: all you can see ahead of you is the sky, until you get close enough to see—ahhh, the ocean.

We usually begin at the most densely populated end of the boardwalk, where the amusement park is located. It’s a good amusement park for small children because it’s large enough to be exciting but small enough to be manageable; nobody’s going to get lost or overwhelmed here.

Photo courtesy of Dan Beards.

Stephanie and I skip the rides (although we often comment on her past fondness for the train ride that circles the park) and walk on to the part of the boardwalk that contains eating places and games. A stuffed banana-person with scraggly hair is a popular prize at the stands this year.

Photo courtesy of http://www.boblucky.com.

From there, we continue on to the less traveled part of the boardwalk. To our right is the railing that separates us from the beach and the ocean. We can see the sunbathers and swimmers and volleyball players, and we can watch the waves and the boats and the small airplanes dragging banners advertising local nightspots. The view to our left is equally tantalizing. Here’s an example:

Image courtesy of Vacation Rentals in Point Pleasant

These houses, and many more like them, are situated right on the boardwalk. Each little dwelling has its own personality. Some have small pools out front for toddlers to wade in, and some have patio sets. The owner of one locally famous house plays Frank Sinatra music all day long, and you can hear it as you walk by. Stephanie and I love looking at each “front yard” behind its low fence and deciding whether we’d like to stay there. I’d like to stay at any of them, actually, just to be that close to the beach.

Our boardwalk journey isn’t over yet. After the last little house, there is another eating/shopping area along the boardwalk and then, finally, the boards end with some benches facing an inlet where boats go back and forth from the bay to the ocean.

Photo courtesy of Dan Beards.

It’s a lovely place to stop and let the wind beat against your face, listen to the swooshing the pumping of the water against the boats, and watch the gulls (and people) walking on the rocks below. And then it’s time to turn around and walk the entire length of the Point Pleasant boardwalk again, with the ocean to your left this time. I always hope Frank will be singing Summer Wind.

*Thank you to Dan Beards.


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The Boardwalk Diaries: Introduction

Growing up in New Jersey, there was one summer destination: the Jersey shore. Just knowing it was there made the less blissful aspects of living in New Jersey tolerable. Actually being there made New Jersey a wonderful place to live.

The Jersey shore has many moods, and in an attempt to define them, two women will walk the boards this summer—mother and daughter, exploring the promenades of our fair state, feeling the heat and the wind, smelling the salty air, and looking all around us for the things that make each precious piece of the Jersey shore unique.

Look for blog posts marked “The Boardwalk Diaries”; you’ll wish you lived here, too, if only for an afternoon at a time.

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The Things We Used To Do

. . . are good for us, it seems. Like watering the garden.

When my daughter was a little girl, she loved being outside. One of the things I used to do while keeping her company was water the garden. She would be busy inspecting odd leaves and aiding wayward bugs while I was busy sweeping the water wand back and forth, back and forth, listening to the sound the drops of water made as they hit the different kinds of surfaces.

When Stephanie stopped amusing herself in the front yard, I stopped watering the garden. My husband coincidentally put in some soaker hoses around that time, so the garden didn’t really need me, but I realize now that I needed the garden. I’ve started watering it again, and it feels good. The sun feels good, the sound of the water is just as lovely as it ever was, and the fresh air is wonderful. Alright, sometimes it’s humid, but mostly it’s wonderful.

I’ve started to think about more things I used to do when my kid was little that I stopped doing when my kid got big:

  • riding my bike around the neighborhood. On the sidewalk. It’s less stressful that way.
  • making coffee-table centerpieces out of pine cones and branches found on neighborhood walks.
  • using art supplies such as pastels and felt.
  • squeezing drops of food coloring onto coffee filters and watching the crazy swirls.
  • making photocopies of book illustrations I like and then decorating them with colored pencils.
  • listening to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books on tape. No wait—I’ve never stopped doing that.

My point is simple: the things we used to do with our children never lost their validity or delightfulness.  If you can remember some cast-off diversions that gave you joy then, why not try them now?  The kinds of activities we pursue when we are full-heartedly intent on pleasing and enriching our children are most likely healthy, educational, and, most of all, fun. And people of every age need to be pleased and enriched. Most enjoyable activities are not rated G, PG, PG-13, and R. (And let’s not get into how I feel about the movie rating system.)

It’s a really hot day. I’ll bet the garden needs water again. Sweep, sweep, drop, drop, good.

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