Do we care more about the kids knowing vocabulary or the ideas behind the vocabulary?
When we drill vocabulary words into kids, we make the words more important than the ideas. And the best place this happens is standardized testing. You see, on these prefabricated, fill-in-the-bubble tests, vocabulary is king. If you know what the big words mean and you understand how to play the game called multiple guess, then you have astronomically improved your chances of scoring high. (Of course it helps to be affluent, too)
And this is precisely why teachers feel pressure to make damn sure their students know their subject’s vocabulary words. Suddenly words like numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism become entire lessons.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against kids learning vocabulary. However, I am far more interested in kids understanding the ideas behind these words. The ideas behind a numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism can be constructed from within, in interaction with their environment. However, the actual words are socially constructed, and therefore, need to be introduced to the kids.
So which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?
I believe meaning has to come first. If you start with the vocabulary then these concepts become things the kids think they have to be told about. They come to see learning as something that has to be done to them, and in doing so, they develop an acute sense of helplessness and dependency.
To avoid this, teachers would be wise to create a learning environment where kids can play around with the essence of the vocabulary, allowing them to construct their own understanding – and then, and only then, introduce the fact that these ideas were discovered before them and they already have a fancy name.