Thursday, April 7, 2011

How do I Know if They’re Really Understanding?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a teacher that started like this, “I have a second grader reading Harry Potter.”

Now, before I go any further, I have to ask: Is your “good fit” book radar flashing? Whenever I hear “second grade,” “Harry Potter,” and “reading” in the same sentence, the red light begins to blink. So I listened as this teacher shared how this child could name all of the characters and tell about Hogwarts Express and the sorting hat and a whole slew of other highlights from Harry Potter. She was very impressed and asked me, “So, what do you think? Is he understanding?”

This is the million dollar question that we all seem to be asking all of the time. But I didn’t want to answer her right away, so instead I shared this story, which I also want to share with you.

When I saw Kelly Gallagher on Tuesday afternoon he gave us this statistic: Three out of four people who leave jail go back within three years. He challenged us to think about what this says…and what it doesn’t say. And then he challenged us to do the same with children.

I went home and tried this with my fifth grade son. I wrote the statistic on a piece of paper and asked him, “Matthew, what does this mean?” He replied promptly. He said, “It means that three out of four people get out of jail and then go back.”

Do you see what he did there? He parroted back to me what the words say. But does he really know what they mean? Based on what he said, I would say no, so I prompted him further and said, “Yes, you’re right Matthew, that is what those words say, but what do they mean? He looked at me quizzically and took a moment to ponder this question a bit. After some thought he said, “I think it means that jail isn’t a good place. I think it’s kind of like Harry Potter. When Bellatrix Lastrange got out of Azkaban, she wanted revenge. When she went in, she was mean and nasty, but when she got out, she was way worse. I think it means that jail doesn’t help people become better.”

Wow. What a change. Now, I’m convinced that he not only understands that statistic, I’m also convinced that he really understands Harry Potter.

Understanding isn’t about summarizing what words say. It’s about thinking about what they mean. At the end of this exchange, I turned back to the teacher and asked her the same question she asked me, “Is he understanding?”

What do you think?

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