Here’s a post by a pseudonymous teacher whose school is following the “21st century skills” model now being heavily promoted by various “experts.” Apparently one of the cornerstones of this approach, at least as implemented at this teacher’s school, is that content knowledge isn’t really all that important…”most content, after all, can be googled anyway.”
This post reminded me of something I wrote back in 2005, in response to other assertions by educationists to the effect that technology makes memorization unnecessary. I quoted some lines from a song by Jakob Dylan:
Cupid, don’t draw back your bow
Sam Cooke didn’t know what I know
…and observed that in order to understand these two simple lines, you’d have to know several things:
1)You need to know that, in mythology, Cupid symbolizes love
2)And that Cupid’s chosen instrument is the bow and arrow
3)Also that there was a singer/songwriter named Sam Cooke
4)And that he had a song called “Cupid, draw back your bow.”
“Progressive” educators, loudly and in large numbers, insist that students should be taught “thinking skills” as opposed to memorization. But consider: If it’s not possible to understand a couple of lines from a popular song without knowing by heart the references to which it alludes–without memorizing them–what chance is there for understanding medieval history, or modern physics, without having a ready grasp of the topics which these disciplines reference?
And also consider: what’s important is not just what you need to know to appreciate the song. It’s what Dylan needed to know to create it in the first place. At least in theory someone who heard the song and didn’t understand the allusions could have spent 5 minutes googling and figured them out, although this approach wouldn’t be exactly conducive to aesthetic appreciation. But had Dylan not already had the reference points–Cupid, the bow and arrow, the Sam Cooke song–in his head, there’s no way he would have been able to create his own lines. The idea that he could have just “looked them up,” which educators often suggest is the way to deal with factual knowledge, would be ludicrous in this context. And it would also be ludicrous in the context of creating new ideas about history or physics. To use a computer analogy, the things you know aren’t just data–they’re part of the program.
I’ve seen no evidence that there exists a known body of “thinking skills” so powerful that they bypass the need for detailed, substantive knowledge within specific disciplines. And if such meta-level thinking skills were to be developed, I suspect that the last place to find them would be in university Education departments.
There are skills which facilitate thinking across a wide range of disciplines: such things as formal logic, probability & statistics, and an understanding of the scientific method–and, most importantly, excellent reading skills. But things like these certainly don’t seem to be what the educators are referring to when they talk about “thinking skills.” What many of them seem to have in mind is more of a kind of verbal mush that leaves the student with nothing to build on.
There’s no substitute for actual knowledge. The flip response “he can always look it up” is irresponsible and ignores the way that human intellectual activity actually works.
None of which is to say that traditional teaching practices were all good. There was probably too much emphasis on rote memorization devoid of context–in history, dates soon to be forgotten, in physics, formulae without proper understanding of their meaning and applicability. (Dylan needed to know about Sam Cooke’s song; he didn’t need to know the precise date on which it was written or first sung.) But the cure is to provide the context, not to throw out facts and knowledge altogether–which is what all too many educators seem eager to do.
There really does seem to be a deep-seated hostility toward knowledge itself among many who define themselves as “educators.”
(link via Joanne Jacobs)