The Wisdom of Not Understanding – A Commentary on Ben Radford 2012

People are often caught in a situation when understanding seems to be a very difficult task. While we are being raised in this world we are taught that the words we hear and read have logical meaning that we should be able to understand. The discussed three reasons for not understanding something: (1) the person accepts his limitations on the topic such that science concepts cannot be easily understood by people who do not have strong foundation on science (2) the speaker cannot express himself through the native language of the audience and (3) the content of the idea which the speaker is discussing is meaningless itself. In conclusion, Radford stressed that when trapped in confusion, no other way one can escape but thru clarification which can be done in a less challenging approach.

The Wisdom of Not Understanding

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As a science teacher for almost a decade, I am often told that when students do not ask questions after a discussion might mean two things: first is that they completely understand the lesson and second is that they do not understand the lesson at all! But effective interaction and pedagogy is only possible if the teacher can assess this process at a fine level of detail (Jordan et al., 2004). This statement may be true, but as for my own experience, it can be said too that students understand some concepts while other areas remains gray, yet students do not ask questions to clarify uncertain thoughts. Conversely, to evaluate improvements in the classroom, the teacher must consider what was actually understood by the students (Hein & Price, 1994). So what will I do? I trailed for reasons on this dilemma.

The most common answer that I have gathered, on the reason why students do not ask questions are: (1) “Nahihiya po kasi akong magtanong.” [I feel shy to ask question/s.] (2) “Wala na po kasing time.” [The time is limited.] (3) “Baka po pagtawanan ako.” [They might laugh at me.]

As years pass, batches of students repeatedly answer one of these statements whenever I encourage them to ask questions to clear up their minds. I usually tell them that Chemistry is a continuous process; information stored in the brain, an elaborate network of neurons communicates with each other (LeDoux 2003) and can be used for tomorrow’s learning. Still, receiving questions from students has been a needle in the rice field.

Although Radford, in his essay did not include culture, I believe that another factor for not asking question is this. Filipinos are very shy, whenever in the eye of the public we tend to be very timid. Little things make us nervous and our students experience the same inside the class. More frequent than not, we are shy, and this culture transpires even inside the class. This of course has an effect to the teaching-learning outcomes. All of the reasons for not asking questions involve the feeling of anxiety. Students do not want to be in the position that everyone in class is staring at them, they do not want the feeling that their classmates would laugh at them and they hate it when their classmate would hit them for extending the class for few more minutes. These further inclined that students were developed in traditional learning during their formative years, where inadequacies to address the learning goals and assess types of understandings students (Herman, Aschbacher& Winters, 1992) are still lacking.

Radford’s essay vividly express three points why people do not understand ideas he is being told. The first one is because the person does not have a background on the topic of discussion. I experience this myself when I attended a conference about microscopy. Before I decided to come, I emailed the president of the organization and asked if I could attend their forum. I told him that my background is Chemistry but would like to know if this area would fit my interest so I may use the technique in future studies, he positively replied that science is becoming more and more interdisciplinary.

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In the conference, I encountered jargons which I never heard in my entire existence, despite the thought that my foundation in science is strong. I keep on hearing TEM, xMax, NGDL, SEM, HBK and so many meaningless words! I was shocked, it is like going home!

I thought that oh-oh, this is not the right room for me; however, I decided to stay and kill boredom by looking at the audience’s feedback on what the speakers are talking about, since feedback is a critical component of effective teaching (Black, 1998; Harlen, 1990). My instinct told me that they too, are having difficulty in understanding what the people in front are actually talking about. One time, the president himself stood and asks questions about certain topic but guarding himself first, that it was not his specialization since he was physics major and the topic was about taxonomy. In this recent experience, I cannot say that I did not learn anything from the presenters who talks in English but as to my perception are speaking Greeks. There were points that I can relate stuff with Chemistry by making associations to somewhat related previous ideas and experiences (Zirbel 2005), but I do not intend to be back next time.

This instance is not the second point of Radford, which is the speaker’s inability to speak in the native language of the audience that brought so much difficulty in my understanding. I just hope that they are not actually leading me to the third point of Radford that is talking in Greeks so I may live in vagueness for almost eight hours!

The Wisdom of Not Understanding

Then, I remember my students, that very feeling that you don’t know whether to ask a question or not because you are so shy that you will look awful in a crowd.

This experience and Radford’s essay taught me two things:

First is, I really have to make science classes more relaxed like a family having chit-chat while watching TV, in this way the students will feel that they can ask questions, at any point during the discussion so they may be able to arrive at deep understanding of connected science concepts (Grotzer 1999). I may allow them to stay on sit when they speak-up, so they will not feel nervous. I was nervous when I stood up in that conference to ask a question because I am not acquainted with the crowd. I thought too, that speakers are nervous themselves because they are not acquainted with the audience. Second is, I can try translating the terms more often. This translation may lead to using vernacular or layman’s term whenever amidst the sea of jargons.

As conclusion, a science teacher certainly needs to connect his own experiences and emotions to her strategies and techniques in teaching. In this way, she will feel what her students need and how she can address these needs.

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