Teaching Knowledge by Teaching Application without Knowledge

bar-exam-300x182By Nick McDaniels – Like most things that have most significantly impacted my teaching, this particular reflection comes from my own experience as a learner.

For the last few months, in between working and parenting, I have been studying for the Maryland Bar Exam, though admittedly not as much as I wish I could. Never before have I prepared for an exam that requires such an expansive knowledge base along with the ability to apply the knowledge. Quite simply, it is so much information that one of the most effective ways to learn it is by attempting to apply knowledge you don’t have to situations requiring such knowledge and then filling in the knowledge gaps later.

And one thing I think about most through this whole process, other than how much I do not know and wish I did, is how much this process of learning is going to improve my classroom practice.

To be sure, I have no intentions of throwing 6-hour, 200-question multiple choice tests at my students. But what I am going to emphasize, particularly in the design of my instruction, is having students demonstrate AND acquire knowledge through application, never independently of application.

Quite frankly, who cares what the 4th Amendment says, if you don’t understand how it affects a person’s rights? Independent of your knowledge of the 4th Amendment, if I asked you whether police should be allowed to bring drug dogs into schools to sniff lockers, what would you say? It doesn’t matter, really, what YOU say, because there is a rule that tells you whether such activity is allowed. What does matter is that I have asked you to apply the knowledge you already have to a situation, rightly or wrongly, helping you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses in knowledge and the parameters for its application. Then, when I provide for you the actual rule, whether you knew it or didn’t (sniff your little K-9 heart out Rin-Tin-Tin), your ability to apply such knowledge will be more precise.

It sounds obvious. Application is more important than knowledge because one demonstrates the other. But we as teachers so often try to increase the amount of knowledge a student has instead of focusing on whether a student can apply knowledge they have (or don’t). This simple shift in thinking, for me at least, is going to change the way I go about instruction.

Honestly, many of my assessments are already ridden with application components, but when I am preparing students for those assessments, I give them knowledge, discuss rules, vocabulary. Then, on exams I give them scenarios and let them apply their knowledge. I have been skipping the step that has been so productive for my own learning, being forced to apply what I do know to something I don’t know, so then I know what I need to know and where and when to apply it.

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