Preparing the Ground for Planting Knowledge

Before planting the seeds in her garden, a gardener will turn over the soil, pick out the stones and weeds, water the ground, and do whatever she can to ensure that, once they are planted, her seeds will flourish and grow. As everyone knows, seeds thrown on hard stony ground are unlike to prosper. Some might take root and find their way below the surface, but most will struggle and many will die.

Planting knowledge in the minds of our students is a bit like the work of a gardener, it requires planning and the careful preparation of the ground. Scattering knowledge onto young minds that are neither interested, nor inclined to listen, is like throwing seeds on hard soil. Some might take root, some might even flourish, but most will be wasted – lost and forgotten. In order to give knowledge the best chance of being remembered we need to engage our students, get their attention, and give them the opportunity to do some thinking. By jumping in too early and starting by telling them what to think before their minds are focused, we make it too easy. And as Willingham and others have told us, learning shouldn’t be made easy, it requires hard work and the flexing of cognitive muscles. Learning that is too simple or too uninteresting will not penetrate the mind, just as seeds thrown onto hard soil will not penetrate hard ground.

This is not to say that the teacher’s expert knowledge is unimportant (it is an essential part of the process), just that there is a time to impart that knowledge, and the time is not right at the beginning. Here’s an example:

Take a look at this picture (click to enlarge), if you know what it is, try to forget for a while and just look at what you notice. Now, if you have time, start with particular section and write down everything you can see – not what’s going on, that’s interpretation – just what you can see. Try to describe using neutral language, such as ‘In the top right hand corner is a figure dressed in white, they are kneeling with their hands in the air, facing a line of fourteen figures, the first seven of these figures are holding a symbol, the second seven are not, some of the figures have the heads of animals, some of the figures have beards, some have not, etc.’

This process of close observation and description is an important skill for students to develop. Too often people jump to conclusions or want to be told what to think. Knowing how to look, how to examine, how to hold back on judgments is a significant element of learning, not to be undervalued or ignored. It is something children can begin to develop from an early age and will help them in all areas of the curriculum.

During this process of looking the mind starts to make meaning, it begins to put elements together, looks for patterns, and familiar aspects, starts to create narratives it can understand. This is what humans do, unless they are discouraged or denied the opportunity. As teachers we should be mindful of this, and know when to step back, give time and space, and know when to allow our students the opportunity to think for themselves. Not because we don’t want to provide them with answers, but because we are waiting to provide those answers when the time is right.

Some might consider this process a form of discovery learning – waiting for the children to work out the answer for themselves – but it really isn’t. The teacher is not hoping the students are going to assimilate knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture through some form of collective magical thinking, rather she is giving them the chance to look carefully and to form ideas of their own, before giving them a detailed explanation when they are ready to hear and ready to remember. Just like seeds taking root in well-tilled earth.

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