I am a proponent of learning by experience, of learning through one’s own explorations and making one’s own discoveries. In early childhood centres it is sometimes called ‘hands on’ learning. The recommendation is to provide opportunities for children to learn by doing rather than simply by listening to someone tell about it or by reading information in a book. For example, experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of a farm create an enriched understanding of farm life that is not possible simply from looking at pictures of farm animals in a caption book. Activities like mixing and making with modelling dough, or building and creating with construction sets provide opportunities for developing numerous skills and understandings.
That’s not to say that experiential learning is best in every situation or that learning from the explanations of others, including reading information in a book, is less worthy. Indeed there is a place for each and it is important to get the balance, timing and application right. You would not need to view many posts on my blog (for example here and here) to realise that I am a proponent of reading also and believe that instilling a love of reading is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.
In their book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown discuss the differences between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. This chart shows my understanding of some of the differences.
I think it would be undisputed that there is knowledge best learned through explicit instruction and other best learned through experience. I am sure you can think of many examples in your own life, like riding a bicycle, learning a foreign language or playing a musical instrument.
But what about teaching young children about heat? It is not far into the life of any young child that they are cautioned about the heat of an oven or stove, heater or barbecue plate. But what is “hot” if you have never experienced it?
Thomas and Brown say that “when a parent first tells a child not to touch a flame because it is hot, the child will almost always put out her hand and get burned” because the child has only been given the explicit part of the information, the part that could be articulated: that “Fire is hot”. When the child is burned much more information is learned by the body: that it hurts and is unpleasant. The child is then able to make connections with other similar “hot” things and situations.
I think neither of the authors nor any parent would suggest a child be burned “for educational purposes” but the power of experience can be seen in this example. Perhaps it also helps to explain why young children need constant reminders to stay away, or precautions need to be taken to protect them, from hot things. Without the burning sensation they have not formed a true understanding.
At my previous school our year one classes were always visited by the local fire fighters who talked about fire safety, explaining the difference between “good” fires (like birthday candles, barbecues and campfires) and “bad” fires, while warning that even good fires could quickly become bad if not monitored correctly.
They talked about the need for smoke alarms in the home and the importance of having escape routes and meeting places planned and practised. They ensured students knew their full name and address and the procedure for calling emergency (000 in Australia) if the need should arise. These are things that all young children should know.
The children were always excited about the firefighters’ visit as they got to look at the firetruck close up, maybe even sit in it or, if they were lucky, see how high they could spray water with the large hose. The tacit knowledge learned through this type of experience, combined with explicit knowledge provides a context that allows children to learn the realities of fire danger and the importance of safety. It wasn’t unusual for the crew to receive a call and rush away during one of their visits, adding further to the overall experience for the children.
Thinking about heat and education, and the hold that explicit knowledge and its testing has on current practice makes me think of the story about a frog in a pot of hot water.
The story says that if you were to put a frog into a pot of hot water, it would jump out immediately; but that if you were to put the frog into a pot of cold water which is warmed slowly, the gradual increase in temperature wouldn’t be noticed and the frog would be boiled alive.
Perhaps this is why some educational practices are accepted without question. People have become so used to them, with small incremental changes seeming insignificant and unworthy of comment. However the cumulative effects over time can be enormous. By the time they are realised, making amends would require so great a change, possibly a total restructuring, that it would defy plausibility.
It is this thinking that has led to me my flash response to the challenge set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch this week to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the phrase, “Man, it’s a hot one.” I hope my contribution is a little more environmentally friendly and suitable for young children than boiling frogs.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.