Do Our Children Learn or Understand?

Learning and understanding are two different actions.  We can learn facts without understanding them.  I remember spending a year of high school chemistry learning without really understanding.  I learned vocabulary and memorized facts.  I did well enough to easily pass my class.  I didn’t understand what was going on and have retained none of the information.  I did not enjoy my class and I still cringe when I think about it.  In my freshman year of college, I took a required class about Shakespeare at 8:00 am in the morning.  I was fully prepared to repeat the chemistry experience by memorizing what I had to know in order to get through it.  I had the most amazing professor.  At 8:00 am in front of a class of barely awake freshman, he reenacted every role and used us as actors to recreate the world of Shakespearean plays.  We understood the unfamiliar prose and old English.  We knew what was happening.  We became a part of the story as it came alive.  As a teacher of both children and adults, I have always strived to do what that professor did for us.  I strive to take complicated topics and bring them to life so my students will feel a part of the learning.  I want them to not only learn but to understand.  I am fortunate to work in a private school setting where student centered investigation and projects can be the basis for building knowledge. 
In today’s test score oriented society, I wonder if there is any consideration given to the difference between learning and understanding.  Memorizing endless facts and completing practice standardized tests do not teach understanding.  Creating, employing our senses and having experiences take the facts on paper and bring them to life in a way that stimulates our brains.  The early childhood education concept that children need to be engaged in their learning applies to learners of all ages.  There is no expiration date on the fact that we understand best what we do.  We learn from trying and erring.  We need to give learners of all ages the opportunity to understand by doing.  We cannot, of course, singlehandedly change an educational system’s current methodology – though we can hope that the pendulum swings back to favor what all educational theory tells us.  We can hope that eventually people acknowledge that many current methodologies don’t foster deeper thinking.  In the meantime, it is incumbent upon all of us to foster our children’s natural curiosity and knowledge about their world.  Parents need to be deliberate when choosing how to expand their children’s world. When deciding what to do with family time, consider the following:

  • Make history come alive by visiting historic sites.  I love when I see young children on tours of presidential homes or historic battlefields or other national historic sites.  Their parents are literally bringing their text books to life.  I remember how excited my children were when they learned something in history and could say, “I’ve been there.”
  • Take your children to a park to see what makes them curious.  Nature is one of life’s best teachers.  Do you remember lying in the grass watching insects crawl?  Do you remember watching the clouds move?  Observing nature and the cause & effect of experimenting with nature teaches so much.  Some of those insects in the grass can carry more than twice their weight.  The clouds are formed as part of the water cycle.  Watch your children to see what they are watching and grasp their curiosity by experimenting with them.
  • Play games together.  That’s right – bring back family game night.  Children learn so many social skills while they are having fun.  They learn to take turns, negotiate, strategize, cooperate, converse, win, lose…the list is endless.  Playing is about far more than collecting the largest pile of cards or ending with the most play money.
  • Go to museums.  Children today are fortunate to be able to start their museum trips with child-friendly, hands on locations.  Visiting museums shouldn’t end when the hands-on exhibits become too juvenile.  Around the same time your children outgrow the touch-me museum, they will be entering a new, higher level of learning.  They will be able to look, read and apply prior knowledge to incorporate what they will see at adult museum exhibits.
  • And if all else fails… you can turn off the mindless TV shows and turn on educational channels.  Remember before cable TV?  We had a choice of only 6 channels and public broadcasting.   We were lucky.  Less choice meant more quality.  Though watching television cannot replace interactive, 3 dimensional learning, we can choose to have our children watch shows that have depth.

Above all else, don’t assume that you have the same interests as your children.  What we find boring might be fascinating to them.  What we avoid might trigger their curiosity.  I find it hard to be bored when my children are fascinated.  Parents have an amazing opportunity to see the world twice – once on our own and once through the eyes of our children.  Perhaps their curiosity about things we don’t understand will help to deepen our learning too.

Read this blog for more articles.  Ask your parenting & education questions and learn about early childhood workshops for parents & educators on my website -
Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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  1. Thanks, Cindy. Very nice article. Quality time together is the key to engaging a child's curiosity.

    I love your simple, but profound, suggestion of watching insects and naming clouds. Attention to detail, appreciation of life, and cultivating imagination in natural settings is awesome. Taking the time to spend together with no set agenda or place to be, but to live in the moment,is also a gift (present).

    Visiting science and art museums with young children and making a game of it, yes! My daughter and I used to (we still do and she's 26) silently pick out our top 2 favorite pieces in a room of a museum, then compare our choices, before moving onto the next room.

    Games of all sorts were a constant, and we would create our own variations for even more enjoyment. We still love a good game.

    Understanding begins at birth, and if allowed to develop naturally, it becomes a lifetime desire in all we do. Scientists, explorers, discoverers are we all.

    1. Thank you! Children are not spending enough time simply being. When I speak to groups of parents, I always try to take the opportunity to remind then what it was like to lie in the grass, to observe and to just be.

    2. Thanks for a wonderful article, Cindy. I am old now (my youngest grandchild is a Junior in high school), but it brought back such great memories of visiting a museum as a child and my subsequent interest in Egyptology and the memory of my younger son arranging ant-battles on the front porch. When I was young our family went on rambles in the country; I could have named every tree and most wild flowers then. Thanks to my father, during the Battle of Britain, instead of cowering in our Andersen shelter in the back yard, I listened and identified the English and German planes and which of our two local gun batteries were firing. We seem to have lost so much these days. My real reason for this, though, is to ask your permission to copy your article for the writing class I lead at the local senior center. So much of it could lead to such a wealth of writing ideas..

    3. Mary - I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Yes - you can copy it for your writing class. I'd love to know how it prompts their writing!


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