Saturday, June 18, 2011

The harmful effects of uttering "think" and "know" (at least when you're under 4)?

Some people argue that it's harmful for children to use the standard algorithms of arithmetic before they understand how and why they work. Supposedly "premature" use blocks future understanding.

By extension young children are harming themselves all the time--specifically when they use words like "think" and "know." That's because, as it turns out, children younger than 4 don't understand the meanings of these words--and, in particular, what distinguishes "think" from "know"--even though they use these words frequently.

I'm reminded of this phenomenon every time I teach my Autism, Language and Reasoning class and revisit the following passage from Katherine Nelson's "Language Pathways into the Community of Minds" (from Why Language Matters for Theory of Mind):
At 3 years, most children studied produce the focal cognitive terms think and know in the course of everyday conversations, at least occasionally...It is not until about 4 years that children appear to use these terms to indicate specific mental states, distinguishing between the meanings of think and know on the basis of certainty...It is not until the early school years that tests of comprehension show clear discrimination among the terms think, know , and guess. And even in the late elementary years, children do not demonstrate understanding of the full range of distinctive meanings of know.
As Nelson explains, the earliest uses of these terms can be described as "without meaning." Does such meaningless use interfere with later understanding? Quite the contrary:
The acquisition of meaning of abstract terms such as mental-state words is best conceptualized in terms of acquiring meaning from use.
Perhaps language isn't the only place where meaningless use is productive rather than harmful; where, in Nelson's words, one can acquire meaning from use. And perhaps if we substitute "acquire" with "construct," even a hard-core Constructivist might consider this possibility.  

Or, at least, isn't it pretty to think so?


Barry Garelick said...

I remember being puzzled by what "thinking" was and asked my mother "how do you think?" when I was in first grade. In first grade, we had a reading/writing activity book called "The Think and Do Book" so my conception of thinking was that it was different than "doing". But in time, I began to understand. I do not believe I suffered ill effects from exposure to such term.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't need to "think like a mathematician." That is a bizarre idea. Just as most children who are learning a sport (rules, skills, physical conditioning, and so forth) do not need to learn the physiological processes behind muscle function. Why would you postpone learning the sport until the kids are old enough to understand molecular biology? And, learning the sport by example and practice doesn't prevent the children from (later) learning why the muscles work the way they do. Now, it's true that children do need to think "big picutre" about the sport they are learning; and they need to bring an analytical approach to that learning. But that is not the same as understanding the "why" before attacking the "how."

Amy P said...

In language, there are a lot of forms that are pretty weird if you stop and think about them. For instance, if I say, "There is a cookie in the jar," what does "There" mean? Why not just say, "A cookie is in the jar." Likewise, when we say "It is cold today," what does "It" mean? Why not just say, "Is cold today." We use this stuff without thinking about it, without registering that it's peculiar.