"I don't understand!"

“I don’t understand.”

Great! You are amazing!

It's not the answer you might expect, but it's the answer students in a Speech, Sense, Style session are likely to get.

Students understandably get tired, they get hungry, they get frustrated. And when they experience these things, they tend to shut down. It's not just them - I think we all do it.

So what should teachers do when students say, "I don't understand," but have clearly shown their ability to demonstrate their understanding and below the surface, they just seem to be blocking learning? 

It's not an easy one to answer - but to explore the territory, I engaged in an internal dialogue in an imagnary situation in which this happened. The context is a Speech, Sense, Style lesson, in which subject and predicate had been covered and all students had demonstrated the ability to state and give examples of simple and complex subjects and predicates in sentences of their own making.



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'If's and 'But's and what thoughts wear at night

In my last couple of blog posts, I’ve written about David Fisher and his work in developing a pragmatic approach to encouraging children to think. I also wrote, “...we believe teachers and students need to experience generating their own ideas to discuss. Effective frameworks for learning and teaching are great – as long as the content that’s generated using those frameworks is original. If both teachers and students don’t have at least one ‘Aha!’ moment a day, there’s something wrong.”

In his book, Teaching Thinking, David Fisher offers some really interesting examples of how this works for him in practice... through questioning... to develop imagination, autonomy, empathy, thinking ahead and beyond the immediate situation, being sensitive, developing and testing hypotheses, being able to justify standpoints, and examining ideals.

Anyone getting 9- to 10-year-old children to come up with questions such as, ‘What is a thought?’; ‘Where do thoughts come from?’ or ‘Does your brain talk to you or do you talk to your brain?’ is on to a good thing.

One of the frameworks he recommends is Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children programme, a resource with lots of teachers’ aides and prompts. Fisher himself provides lots of facilitation questions as well, such as, ‘What do you mean by that?’; ‘Can you repeat that in your own words?’; ‘Can you give an example?’ ‘Do you know what we said a few moments ago?’ or ‘What question are we talking about?’ Much of the success of these questions depends on these being asked in an open-ended, non-judgemental way. Questions are presented in useful categories, with 25 possibilities given to help teachers direct a Socratic discussion.

I tried this approach out on my long-suffering 13-year daughter – I’d read up on the approach, decided to question her about thinking, taking a list of Lipman’s questions Fisher includes in his book as starting points. To my chagrin, I found I was so engrossed in trying to remember the questions, I’d lost sight of the point Fisher makes, quoting Plato – ‘Philosophy begins in wonder.’

I wondered at my own inadequacy and went back to the drawing board to try to understand what underlying framework would help me – and hopefully other teachers – generate meaningful questions naturally and spontaneously. Here's what happened...


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How to juggle with thoughts

I tried to learn to juggle once – I didn’t stick at it long enough to reach a level I was happy with, but I remember having to start off just holding the juggling balls, balancing one in each hand, feeling their weight, passing one from one hand to the other, and feeling the change. It was a slow, intense process, rather like starting out with juggling thoughts.

Before getting into formal logic, it’s useful to know there’s a roadmap for the way we instinctively think of the world around us. Aristotle was one of the first of the Greek thinkers to try to define not just the different ways we think about things (see my previous Blog post on The 10 Categories of Being), but the way we think about more than one of those thoughts, how we put them together. He came up with a basic scheme which Cicero later added to. Cicero ended up with 16 approaches. They’ve become known as the 16 Logical Topics of Invention.

Want to know where they come from? Read on...


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The thought experiments continue

You can have so much fun with an idea – throwing it up in the air, turning it upside down, stretching it out like a ball of putty – it’s what Aristotle seems to have loved doing best.

In fact, he came up with a list of top 10 ways to play with a thought.

They’re vital to the Speech, Sense, Style approach we're working on at the moment.

They’re called the 10 Categories of Being.

Aristotle wrote about them in his Categories, one of six books grouped together under the title of the Organon.

The 10 Categories provide a really useful framework for thinking about something – it could be an object, like a bottle, or a mug, or a laptop; it could be an idea like justice or a quality like laughter. Just one thing. Your choice. Choose and hold it in your mind.

How many ways can you describe it in?

In fact, go off, choose something to focus your thoughts on if you haven’t already done so and write down as many as you can, then come back. Off you go. It’s worth doing.

Done that? No? Then go and do it, then come back and read on...


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A pragmatic approach to the cultivation of wisdom

A few months ago, Giles and I were approached by Phil McDermott of The Story Emporium to collaborate on devising an educational syllabus we've called 'Speech, Sense, Style'. Phil already does very successful work in using storytelling as means of developing literacy through oracy. He knew of the work we do in terms of voice-centred communication skills training including classical rhetoric and rhetorical training – his challenge to us was, could we work together to help young learners not just speak out more clearly, but work on expanding their frames of reference, the quality and depth of their thinking, and enhance the self-expression of their individuality.

In his Essays on Education, Alfred Whitney Griswold wrote, 'The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.'

Over the next few weeks, I plan to outline, in practical and pragmatic terms, what I believe this means in modern terms and why we think putting wisdom at the heart of an integrated liberal arts curriculum focused on logic, grammar and rhetoric is vital and relevant to all of us – whether or not we're educators or parents – to all of us, here and now.


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