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Bridging the Gap from Learning to Understanding

Bridging the Gap from Learning to Understanding
Home » Philosophy and Outlook » Bridging the Gap from Learning to Understanding

Learning as a child is like writing on clear and fresh paper. But learning in old age is like writing on worn or erased paper.

— Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 4

As someone who has recently crossed the mid-century mark, I can attest that there are many days for which the above aphorism holds true.  Adults, especially the well-seasoned variety, who set out to learn a new language or skill, often find themselves consciously (or not) viewing the material being covered through the prism of their own prior knowledge.

Sometimes this can be useful; I remember surprising an instructor recently during a Hebrew language course at ulpan (in Israel, this is the most common way to learn the language quickly, via an intensive, immersive method), when I was able to rattle off the proper conjugations for a series of verbs covering past, present, and future tense, in one of the more obscure constructions. (For the record, Hebrew has seven covering various active, passive, and reflexive voices.)

When asked by the instructor if I had read ahead of the class, I sheepishly shared that no, I hadn’t glanced at the assignment (or even at my textbook) for the better part of a week due to other commitments. All it took was hearing a couple of the same words said out loud in class to trigger an almost Pavlovian response – one that transported me back in time over four decades ago to my first Hebrew tutor’s kitchen table, where I had spent the last part of my pre-second grade summer memorizing the seven main tables of Hebrew verb construction and conjugation. (Quick background: in order to start attending full-time day school in 2nd grade, I had to cram two years of missed language instruction into two weeks’ time.)

I also remembered being annoyed at having to give up two extra weeks’ worth of swimming and bike-riding with the other neighborhood kids. However, my tutor did manage to complete the process, engraving the various grammatical tense tables into my cerebral cortex, where they continue to reside along other various bits of intellectual jetsam and flotsam picked up around that same era, including the starting lineup and pitching rotation for the 1976 New York Yankees.

Why do I bring all of the above up – to teach a simple lesson: Learning isn’t always meant to be easy (or fun).

Now, there’s no need to start slamming me in the comments section with all kinds of vituperative invective.  I am totally aware that, for many people, learning should always be “fun”. After all, we’re homeschoolers… right? Not to mention, as adults we do take on challenges where we wind up learning all sorts of fun things, be it a foreign language, woodworking, or how to use the latest smartphone apps without deleting one’s data.

The simple fact is this: Learning can’t (and shouldn’t) be “fun” – and to think as much betrays an certain level of intellectual blindness or dishonesty. Facts are facts –  and in this case, students who are just starting out in life don’t have the advantages of prior background or knowledge that help older students learn easily. They will need to get it via somewhere – and it’s more likely than not that it will involve (gasp!) hard work.

This isn’t rocket science; if anything, this is just plain common sense. After all, as young students, many of us (of a certain age, to be honest) were made to memorize verb tense tables, multiplication tables, and other fundamental structures of most academic disciplines. Once this was accomplished, we then found it easier to acquire additional layers of subject knowledge – all on top of that fundamental base.

However, education in recent decades has decided that all learning MUST be easy and fun, or you’re just not doing it right. This concept seems to really taken hold in education over the last several decades.  To any outside observer, it’s as if someone decided overnight that since learning – once grounded in the basic concepts – can sometimes be easy and fun, then all learning needs to be easy and fun, no matter the topic, framework, or setting.

Let’s put it another way: believing that education must be fun all the time is like saying that, since people over their lifetimes enjoy eating ice cream, everyone should based their diet on nothing but ice cream.

Not only is this wrong, it’s actually harmful to what the true aim of learning should be: understanding.

This is where I have a real beef with the concept of “sprint-and-cover” education. Far too many students are being taught to ‘skim and scan’ through the relevant subject matter, in order to cover as wide a breadth of required material as possible within the limited classroom time available. While this “teach to the test” approach may yield better test scores in the short-term, students whose instructors adopted a slower and more in-depth approach to learning the same subjects wound up doing better grade-wise in their university-level studies.

Your student will need a solid grounding in the subject’s basic concepts, no matter the topic being covered. Yes, reviewing these kinds of fundamentals are probably time-consuming, frustrating, and boring – for both the homeschooling parent and child. However, without grasping the “building blocks”, students in effect are only mimicking in a call-and-response fashion, with no understanding of what they’re really saying. The end product may look nice at first glance, like writing on a clean paper – but a second look may show that the learner lacks the ‘worn-in’ context that can only come from more in-depth examination and reflection on the given subject.

If you want to ensure that your student isn’t just answering via rote or reflex, but actually understands what they’re being taught – try this all too simple approach: Ask them to explain what it is they’re trying to explain or express, in their own words. Make them think through whatever the subject or matter is, and then write it down.

Keep in mind, it’s not about style or word count – their answer can be as simple as a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two (or even more). What is important? Seeing that they use their own words to explain and show their understanding of the given concept. It’s not about learning the given subject’s “whys” vs. its particular “whats”; if anything, it’s about your learner demonstrating sufficient mastery of both.


Jonathan Meola, co-founder and instructor at Open Tent Academy, attended the University of Miami, where he earned his B.A., and returned several years later to earn a graduate certification in Applied Quality Management, while helping to manage executive graduate degree programs for their business and engineering schools.

Professionally, Jonathan has worked as a technical consultant, managing enterprise software implementation projects for companies such as AT&T, Boeing, Discovery, Honda, Nestle, and several Federal agencies across the United States, and also worked on projects in Canada, Israel, and Mexico. He also has developed curricula for corporate training, and led sessions as an instructor on many occasions. Today, he resides with Eva in a small town outside of Jerusalem. Jonathan has three children, all of whom were homeschooled at one time or another. In his spare time, he loves traveling, reading, photography, analyzing politics, NCAA college football (Go Canes!), and cinema.

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