|I recently started re-reading the French Asterix albums. Even though I can read French, I have been reading the English translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Yes, I can understand the text as written in French, but the real comprehension is lost in translation – the bard being named Panoramix in French means almost nothing to me, but Cacophonix makes sense.|
There’s understanding of the language, and understanding of the context and culture in which the text was produced. I can tell you what the characters are saying, but I can’t tell you why they’re saying it – in English, I can, because I’m situated in the same context.
In the Bell / Hockridge translations, intended for British audiences, a lot of foreign-language references are retained. These likely would have made sense to educated readers at the time the texts were first translated – it was fine to leave Latin jokes and puns in, as students in Britain likely would have had to study Latin and would get the gist. They’d also get the historical and geographical references from school.
Oddly, when I first read the books (when I was 10 or 11 years old) I had no trouble getting the jokes, puns and references either. Yes, I did have to study Latin at school – but that only started when I was 16 years old, so that didn’t help. I have some theories about how I knew that Lutetia was Paris, or Lugdunum was Lyon, or that acta est fabula means ‘the story is over’, but however I knew them, I knew them. If questioned, I could explain what the references meant, their function in the text, etc.
This was before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today. I was one of the first among my peers to have the Internet at home, and at that stage I did not yet have it. We didn’t even have access at school! I wasn’t googling these things, and I sure wasn’t looking things up in other books.
(OK, fine, I did read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when I was 10. I also read a lot about Vercingetorix in really, really old books. He doesn’t get a lot of coverage in new texts.)
The thing is, re-reading them now, I have no idea what half the references are. I still get the names – the centurion Surplus Dairprodus’ name is not a complicated joke! – but I forgot what acta est fabula meant. I forgot that Lugdunum was Lyon. Strangely, I still got the joke ‘Why the past tense?’ when a character says ‘visi’ (the prefix in visigoth) instead of the anticipated ‘vici’. How I got that, I don’t know, but it’s a funny joke.
What I have had to do is google things. And that’s the important bit – I am googling them. I’m not ignoring the bits I don’t understand.
This is something incredibly frustrating when teaching Reading. I cannot comprehend how students can just keep reading after not understanding part of a text. Fine, you don’t need to fully understand every last detail, but if you are reading a text about a skier named Tara and you don’t know what skiing is… you need to stop and find out. Being able to decode the words is not enough.
I regularly drill into my students the importance of stopping and finding out. Sometimes, a very valid point is thrown back at me – ‘I don’t care.’ (If you don’t care, it isn’t the right text for you.) It’s a long, drawn-out process, but my students always learn to stop and ask – and they’ve all sat through lessons where I’ve confused myself, abandoned the lesson and found things out for myself.
I apply the same to Science. I have… much greater than usual science knowledge and science understanding. But it is just… facts and processes. I don’t really know why things work the way they do, or why I or anyone else should care. I just know how things work the way they do.
This came to a head during my final teaching placement and even moreso in my first year of teaching. I took a group of three students out to make and launch rockets as a reward. We used bicarb soda and vinegar as our fuel. I was easily able to explain the chemical reaction occurring between the two substances, to reassure the students it was safe to touch. (One of the students pointed out, after my explanation, that I hadn’t accounted for some Hs and Os… I forgot to mention the water byproduct.)
The knowledge I had was utterly useless for what we were doing. Our learning was to explore and engage – the fact I already knew what would happen and how provided no benefit, and it meant I missed out on the fun.
Later in my first year, one of our leading teachers planned a science activity for us – making and playing with oobleck. In theory, I know how oobleck should work (it creates a suspension, with the starch particles suspended evenly in the water, making the fluid behave in ways young learners may not expect) but I ignored that knowledge to just explore with the kids. Instead of ensuring the kids knew how it worked, I focused on the experience of playing with it, asking questions and testing it out (the best being ‘What would happen if we threw it at our P.E. teacher?’ – the answer was not what I expected, but it was fun finding out!).
The finding out is the key part, just like with Reading. I would never expect my students to just know or just accept what I tell them about a text; they need to engage with it themselves and find out for themselves when they are stuck. The same applies to Science…
… and I’m in a perfect position to model it. At Levels 3-6, students are tasked with exploring why things happen, or predicting the effects of things. I can apply a logical, theoretical approach to this which more often than not will tell me the right answer, but that’s a different skill and different approach to what is expected for and from my learners. They specifically need to explore, not just tell the right answer.
I realised that I already do this quite a bit. Recently, we had a curriculum day in which chicken was served for lunch. I don’t eat chicken for moral reasons. It then had me wondering why I eat eggs, but won’t eat chicken – the same moral reasons should apply. This led me to investigate (explore) the differences between a chicken and its eggs. I ended up with very little new knowledge, but the act of exploring led me to new opinions and attitudes.
The goal is to help students see what it is like to explore things they don’t understand, not just to google the right answer (or ask the teacher). For me, this is most easily developed through exploring science, as that area engages me, but in theory the same approach could work in any curriculum area.
A secondary goal is to elaborate on this to support students’ literacy development through exploration and experiential learning, but that is for another time.