How to know if your student is really learning: “If you can’t teach it you don’t know it”

We hear it all the time. Students say, “I get it when my teacher shows it to me, but I can’t do it on the test.” Then parents tell us that their child “doesn’t test well.”

When children say, “I get it when my teacher shows me,” what they’re really saying is that they didn’t learn it for themselves.

Turning New Knowledge into Prior Knowledge

The process of turning “New Knowledge” (NK) into “Prior Knowledge” (PK) is what I call “internalization.” When our brain receives new information, it looks to store it somewhere meaningful. If there is no related PK to connect it to, then the NK remains just that, unrelated, unconnected information that has no lasting memory.

However, when the NK finds a comfortable home, it is connected to meaningful PK and can now begin the process of internalization, that is going from NK to PK.

Kids get this.

(For more on Prior Knowledge see The Learning Process and Prior Knowledge, Teacher Expectations & Relevancy.)

Breaking it Down

When kids say that the teacher “doesn’t break it down for me,” what they’re saying is that the teacher is assuming student Prior Knowledge that isn’t there. That means that the  teacher is continuing a lesson while the students are still stuck on the first step. No learning there, because the kids have no PK to apply to the NK.

“Breaking it down” means not moving forward without a full explanation of every connection and step, and looking back after each to see how you got there.

Imagine that you want to teach someone how to hopscotch: “You take a rock, throw it on a number, jump over it, pick it up and then do it again on the next number.” Not helpful. We would more clearly explain hop scotch by going slowly through each and every step of the game, starting with understanding asphalt, rocks, chalk, and numbers.

Effective teachers “break it down” into meaningful chunks and don’t move on until each piece of the lesson has been internalized. Teaching that “breaks it down” turns NK into PK by being:
1) deliberate
2) never assuming prior knowledge, especially from step to step
3) repetitive

So what can a Parent do?

Parents tell us that they could help their children in elementary school, “But now she’s in 8th grade, and I don’t remember Algebra, so I can’t help her with it any more.”

At that point many parents turn to expensive tutoring to substitute for the learning that students could be engaging at school and that the parents don’t feel empowered to provide their children at home.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Socrates, for example, had a thought or two on teaching, including:

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.

To paraphrase: questioning is the way to learning.

Explain it to me

When teachers demonstrate a lesson (hopefully well broken down) they are “showing,” which we call, “guided practice” (see Guided v Independent Practice). Here the teacher shows, and the students learn by watching and applying their Prior Knowledge to make sense of the New Knowledge.

The effective teacher will next ask students to demonstrate their learning independently:  “Now, draw your own hopscotch court…”

Here’s where showing and doing merge into learning (internalization).

Following Socrates, you don’t need to know math to help your child learn it. Math expertise is the teacher’s job. You, however, can engage your child in independent practice without knowing anything about it by guiding your child to teach it back to you.

Teaching requires knowing

Kids know in two seconds when a teacher is teaching something he doesn’t really know. Same thing for kids: if they know it, they can teach it to you, the parent.

So rather than trying to teach your child, ask, instead, that your child to teach you.

Remember that we want to engage our children, so avoid judgment and pressure, and instead use encouraging, engaging words such as “show me” or “that’s cool, how does that work,”

If the child knows it, he will say it. If he doesn’t know it, now you need to step in and scaffold the process of articulation of the learning.

There’s always something a child knows, no matter how difficult or confusing the question or problem. “Going “Socratic,” the parent can break a topic into little questions to flush out the NK from the PK:

Questions such as,  “What’s that mean?” “What do you know about it?” “How did you do that?” can open the door to articulation of Prior Knowledge and internationalization of New Knowledge through practice.

Engage your child in questions to flush out what she knows from what she doesn’t know. This is precisely the Socratic method, which draws out the learning through questions. Remember,

If you can’t teach it you don’t know it

When your child teaches it to you, your child knows it.

Even when your child gets stuck, the Socratic method is especially powerful. Following the effective teacher who can “break it down,” ask your child about each step backwards and forward.

Doing so, your child will be articulating the difference between PK and NK.

Now armed with specific questions about the unclear NK, your child can take it back to class for clarification of specific steps and rebuild that platform of Prior Knowledge needed for internalization of the New Knowledge being taught.

Good luck helping your child turn that NK into PK by asking him or her to teach it to you!

– Michael