Friday, September 7, 2012

Learning and Knowing

           Learning. It’s all about making new distinctions.
           When my grandson Dallas was three, everything with four legs and a tail was a cow. He was very clear about that. I was visiting and had brought a picture book about a dog named Spot. On every page, with great confidence, he pointed to the dog and said, “Cow.”
“No,” I’d say. “That’s a dog.”
He’d look at me patiently. “It’s a cow.” He knew.
On the last page of the book was a picture of a big black dog. “Woof, woof,” I said.
He smiled. “It’s a cow.”
Later that afternoon, I took him for a walk. Suddenly, a big black dog off leash lumbered up and stood nose to nose with Dallas. The dog barked, "Woof!”  Dallas’s whole body trembled. He looked up at me and said, “Dog.” A new distinction.
Learning is about our perceptions as well. We take our perceptions and make sense out of them. We know what we know. When granddaughter Megan was four, she knew all about factories. “That’s where they make the horses,” she told me. I had not a clue where that had come from and try as I did, I couldn’t change her mind. Later that day, her father took us all for a ride. And there, out in the country, was a tall smokestack, an abandoned factory building, and all around it were horses. Megan gave me a knowing look. “See, Grammy. The horses.”
I loved my years of working one on one with students. Miracles happened every day. And some times I had to be the bearer of bad news. Laura was a first grader and refused to learn her number facts. I finally asked her straight out if she was every going to learn them. She leaned toward me, smiled, and whispered. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Maxwell. Next year I’ll be in the second grade and I won’t have to do this anymore.” I felt like the wicked witch of the West.
And there was Evan. He knew right from left. No big deal. Right was the side where the windows were.
Carrie was a mystery when she came to my learning center. Her problem was comprehension, and her performance was all over the map. One afternoon, I read a paragraph to her and then asked a question. (The answer was a brown puppy.) She screwed up her pretty little face, then made another facial contortion. She held her chin in her hands and frowned ferociously. 
“Carrie,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m thinking.”
Oh no. Some adult had no doubt told her to “think.” Carrie had no clue what that meant, but she knew what it looked like.
“Carrie,” I said. “Don’t think. When I asked you that question, did you see something in your mind’s eye?” I pointed to her head.
She nodded. “A little brown dog.”
I now knew what to do about Carrie’s “comprehension” problem.
I have dozens of these stories, and some are very strange, but I’ve made my point. My ten years experience one on one with students was a goldmine. I learned so much. And I had to toss out most of the notions I had about teaching. I think my biggest lesson was the realization that when we get all grown up, we think we know, and we forget that it’s all smoke and mirrors.


  1. Ruth, I hate to break it to you, but you just proved your conclusion is incorrect. YOU don't think you know, but you know. I am sure of it. (As sure as I am that Labor Day was called "Labor Day" because that is the day my mom went into labor and I came into the world.)

  2. What a great story, Ruth! I wish I had had teachers as compassionate and empathetic as you :) I love your last line; it is absolutely all smoke and mirrors! We really know nothing; especially when it comes to others. Whenever I begin to think I know, I meet someone who reminds me that I don't and to stay as neutral as possible. Like a conduit, perhaps, through which great things can happen :).