A Radical Theory: Introduction

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.

-Kurt Vonnegut

This poem nicely sums up part of our human nature in that we are at rest when we understand our experiences. Conversely, it is unsettling when we feel a lack of understanding. Knowledge brings peace of mind, yet the unknown can cause worry and stress.

But how do we know things? How do we come to understand our observations and experiences?

Consider this series of events:

  • Hank arrived at home and found two masked men waiting for him.
  • After a time, he ran away.
  • When Hank returned home the same masked men were there, but he was safe.

Can you come up with a story, some theory, that would make sense of these events? Is the story unsettling to you? Do you find yourself wanting more information? See if this helps:

  • Hank was carrying a club when he first arrived at home, but not when he returned.
  • There were many witnesses, but no officials asked any questions.

Does this new information fit in with your original theory or story, or do you need to change your theory?

Our brains are constantly and desperately attempting to make sense of the information we receive. Children are going through this same process as they interact with mathematics in our classrooms. They strive to understand, to know, to make sense of the things they experience.

How do children come to understand? There are observations we can make as children learn, and we can devise theories to explain the observations. These are called learning theories, and there have been many over the centuries. At the AIMS Center, we feel that one theory best describes how children come to know mathematics. The theory is called radical constructivism, and I would like to spend a few blog posts writing about the main ideas of this theory and how we see it in action as we work with teachers and students in math classrooms.

Why is it important to consider such a learning theory? I believe it can give focus and direction to the decisions teachers make in the classroom. In my teaching career, I have spent many years following trends, chasing good ideas, searching for best practices, and even looking for gimmicks to “make kids learn.” However, adopting a learning theory changed and focused the way I see the students and my role in interacting with them. It even changed the way I see myself as a learner.

I want to share my understanding of this theory with you, invite you to consider it, see if you agree, and hear your feedback. These posts might appear several weeks apart, but that is fine. It will give us time to consider ideas and see if the theory helps make sense of students’ understanding.

Oh, and what about Hank?

Hank’s last name was Aaron, and he was a baseball player famous for hitting home runs.

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