Several weeks ago, in my article "Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding," I stressed the crucial connection between writing and understanding:
For the student to write explanations, in complete sentences, about every subject—whether history, literature, grammar, math, or anything else—requires that he have a true understanding of the concepts at hand. But he can often do well on multiple choice, matching, or other rote exercises with no real understanding.
Let me elaborate on this topic.
If a student's understanding of a given idea is genuine, if he holds the idea independently and clearly sees its relationship to reality, then he can offer reasoned support for his view. In asking the students to write paragraphs and essays in every subject, we are able to emphasize this crucial aspect of thought—we demand that they give reasons for their assertions.
Far from the "every opinion is sacred" attitude learned in most all of today's schools, our students learn that "any unsupported opinion is sacrilege."
Several years ago, some of our older students were asked to write an essay about their opinion of school uniforms. Word about this assignment got around, and some younger students became concerned that this was a policy we were giving serious consideration. They complained to their parents, who agreed to come and discourage me from requiring uniforms.
Apparently, these 9 and 10-year-old students told their parents, "Now don't just go in and state your opinion about school uniforms. You have to be prepared with clear reasons for your view."
Knowing that their parents had not attended VDA, they feared this was a lesson they had not learned.
The fact that the students are universally required to support their abstract assertions means that the teacher is always able to discover how they hold those abstractions. The teacher learns not just whether the child recalls the abstract conclusion, but why he believes it is true. . . .