I have chosen to present on John Locke’s On the Conduct of the Understanding as part of this week’s focus on modern philosophy of education. I will first explain some critical ideas from the reading, which helped me frame my critical question/thesis. I will then consider a recent controversy within education; specifically, I will be looking at the debates around the common core standards relating to mathematics in the United States. Lastly, I will be concluding with my argument based on Locke’s ideas and my research.
Critical Ideas From The Reading
In On the Conduct of the Understanding Locke examines how humans should reason and rationalize to form understanding and come to well-founded conclusions. According to Locke, in order to gain the truth, one shouldn’t blind his/her own view (Locke, p. 3). In order to understand something well, one must be exposed to more than one sort of notion or viewpoint and consider these viewpoints in their reasoning. Good reasoning and understanding happen when all arguments, for and against, are examined against one another and a conclusion is formed based upon the whole picture (Locke, p. 9).
Locke argues that the process of reasoning must be taught early if one wants to reason well (Locke, p. 8). The goal is to teach and practice reasoning so that it becomes habit. Locke argues that although we may be born with the ability to be rational, we only develop the necessary skills to act rationally and reasonably if we use, exercise, and apply these skills and work hard to become “rational creatures” by teaching the mind to look for connections and different ideas. Thus, adapting minds to this process early allows them to use these skills to consider various sides to an argument rather than being limited by their one single view when making judgments.
Lastly, Locke argues that teaching mathematics is essential for making students “reasonable creatures”. He believes that the reasoning skills learned in the study of mathematics can be transferred to other parts of knowledge (Locke, p. 8).
In order for one to understand and reason well, he or she must be willing to consider more than one viewpoint and take these into consideration before making judgments or forming conclusions. The skills necessary to reason and rationalize well must be taught early so that they are practiced regularly and become habit. The question becomes: do reasoning skills need to be exercised and applied early in order for one to reason well? If so, how should educators teach reasoning, critical thinking and alternative problem solving skills to children early on in their schooling?
Debate or Controversy Within Education
Since Locke speaks about teaching mathematics as the essential way to fostering “reasonable creatures,” this made me think of the debates around the common core standards approach to mathematics. This approach was developed in the United States due to the understanding that students could learn mathematics by rote memorization of particular algorithms, but had difficulty applying that same knowledge to more advanced mathematics causing many students to not pursue advanced math classes (Kruger, 2018). After analyzing the processes of professional mathematicians, researchers found that these professionals had a deeper understanding of numbers and the relationships between numbers and they often did not follow the formulas and algorithms that are taught to elementary school students and, if they did, they understood the reasoning behind those formulas (Kruger, 2018).
The common core required students to learn different ways to attempt to solve math problems and tried to encourage strategic critical thinking and creative problem solving skills. For example, students may solve a problem using one method and then check their work by trying another method to see if they come to the same solution. The goal of common core math is to help students understand the relationship between numbers.
The debate arose when parents found themselves not being able to help their children with their math homework, as they were unfamiliar with the approaches being taught in school and the math problems looked too complicated. There are some people who believe that this approach to mathematics is problematic as it takes more time and steps to arrive at the correct answer (Phillips, 2017). Questions arise as to whether “replacing rapid recall of arithmetic facts and memorization of multiplication tables” with this method is actually helpful to students when they apply to college or who wish to enter STEM fields (Phillips, 2017). According to Kruger (2018), “the Common Core State Standards initiative…did not, in and of itself, change the approach to teaching mathematics. It simply encouraged more widespread adoption of new methodologies that are rooted in well-researched, evidence-based best practice.”
I agree that critical thinking and problem solving skills need to be practiced in order to be developed well and in order to be transferred to different subjects of knowledge. According to psychologists, children learn to reason around the age of 7 and educational content should reflect their development (Sher et al., 2014). With regards to the controversy on the common core mathematics approach, after reading Locke, I think that teaching different approaches to solving math problems is beneficial to students. Providing students with options is important in adapting to different learning styles and offering students an option to learn about the relationships and connections between numbers is crucial for students who have difficulty grasping concepts using the traditional approach to teaching math. However, I do think that alternative methods to teaching should be taught in combination with traditional and standard methods so that students are not at a disadvantage when they enter advanced math or higher education.
In a more broad educational sense, I would argue that providing alternative instruction helps students understand that there is more than one way to tackle a problem and that they should explore different perspectives before coming to conclusions. Fostering critical thinking skills in any subject is beneficial to developing student’s reasoning abilities and the goal of making reasoning habitual means that it can be transferrable to other knowledge areas. Students will learn that considering alternatives is a necessary step in coming to educated conclusions and they will seek different ways of thinking to solve problems.
Kruger, P. (2018, September 05). Why Did The Approach To Teaching Math Change With Common Core? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/09/05/why-did-the-approach-to-teaching-math-change-with-common-core/#53c08ab69ff2
Locke, John. On the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Jonathan Bennett, 2017, pp. 1- 10. www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1706.pdf
Phillips, C. J. (2017). Knowing by number: Learning math for thinking well. Endeavour, 41(1), 8-11. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2016.11.001
Sher, I., Koenig, M., & Rustichini, A. (2014). Children's strategic theory of mind. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(37), 13307-13312. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43043466