Thinking and Memorizing, continued

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)

21 thoughts on “Thinking and Memorizing, continued”

  1. It amuses me to see the consternation among educated people, including my children, when I can do math in my head faster than they can find a piece of paper, let alone a calculator. I actually have a book on the topic and it is a good exercise, sort of like crossword puzzles for vocabulary. The beginning of all math is rote memorization.

    This is why I hold teachers, most of them, is such contempt. I am angry at my daughter’s college instructors who lie to her but the garden variety public school teacher is usually only an object of pity. They have one simple thing to accomplish in life and they can’t do it. Many of them never learn and so the ed school professors are also an object of anger.

    TV and computer games are a problem. My youngest is the only one who did not enjoy having me read to her and reading to herself as she got older. She is struggling with writing essays now so her recent decision to major in accounting sounds like a good idea.

    Higher math requires homework and working out problems over and over and over. Unless of course you are Richard Feynman.

  2. By utter coincidence I am sure, content knowledge can be objectively tested whereas “critical thinking skills” cannot be.

    If our education standards rely even partially on content knowledge then we can assess the performance of the education system. If our education standards rely on “critical thinking skills” then we just have trust that the education establishment knows what it is talking about and keep shoveling money to them.

    The idea that you can google content is very much an academic mindset. Yes, you can find answers on line to questions that someone else has thought off and written it down. In other words, you can look up test answers on line. You look up pre-structured information that is spoon fed in just the way you need it to be structured.

  3. “By utter coincidence I am sure, content knowledge can be objectively tested whereas “critical thinking skills” cannot be.”

    Depends what you mean by “objective” and “cannot be”.

    If you mean that it is difficult and expensive to administer valid and reliable standardized tests that measure analytical skills, the ability to synthesize and draw analogies, that is correct. It is, however, not impossible. There are all kinds of specialized psychometric instruments, just not very economical ones for a k-12 public school scale that would do this well.

    By contrast, standardized tests that measure content knowledge via multiple choice scantron tests are relatively cheap, fast and require no special expertise to administer. Most state tests for NCLB, like the ISAT fall into this category, as do the IOWA’s. Quality level here varies. IOWA’s are far more reliable an indicator than ISATs of student performance but both tests are inferior to many others.

    A qualitative step up, tests like the SAT, ACT, AP and others do measure some degree of critical reasoning. These tests have become more “g” loaded (i.e. more like IQ tests) in recent decades due to efforts to remove “cultural bias”. It is harder to argue that equations and spatial representations are “discriminatory”. The NAEP is generally considered to be “the gold standard” partly due to the care put into it’s construction and the extreme security under which every single test is administered (I have seen it firsthand – it is airtight).

    Arguing content vs. critical thinking is like arguing in favor of your left hand over your right. You need both to be an educated and thoughtful person. Memorization is not evil, it is a required component of learning the basics of every field though it is more pronounced in some disciplines than others. That said, you do not want to remain at the level of basics forever, even in k-12 education. Starting your critical thinking when you matriculate to your freshmen year of college is a poor pedagogical plan for success.

    Critical thinking has always been an apex for western education for – hey – 2400 years (Socratic method).Students need rigor. Students need inquiry. Students need to ask questions. They also need multiplication tables and a common core curriculum. One does not drive out the other except in pursuit of some wacky educational theory – like relentless testing or content free classrooms

  4. Actually, in a way the effects of “content -v- critical thinking” can be measured.

    In my small town in Colorado, over the objections of the School District, a Charter School was founded. It is a “Core Knowledge” school based on E. D. Hirsch’s concept of Cultural Literacy, and the curriculum he designed. You have to know and understand certain underlying concepts to be educated. For instance, I am not Christian. However, in order for me to be marginally able to communicate and understand both English and Western History, I have to have a working knowledge of Christianity [so much of English is derived from the Judeo-Christian culture] and how it has interacted with history. If you remove Biblical references, you lose comprehension of a huge percentage of the metaphors, similes, and allusions that make up English.

    They get a fraction of the funding per student from the government that the public schools do. The best teachers in the district competed to be allowed to move over there. We have standardized state testing at every level. The “Core Knowledge” school has EVERY kid at or usually far above grade level in every subject; reading, math, English, history and science. The public schools … well we are better than urban areas, but the examples of functional illiteracy and innumeracy are embarrassing. And asking our public school kids about anything that took place before 2000 is horrifying, let alone getting them to understand cause and effect.

    The best measure though is found in the fact that the “Core Knowledge” school is K-10. They go to the public school for their last two years before graduation. And end up at the top of their graduating class without even trying.

    Subotai Bahadur

  5. Concur with the general of the Hordes.

    ED Hirsch’s curriculum recommendations are generally several orders of magnitude more substantive than what is available at the majority of public and private schools until you get into the high SES “magnet” public school/selective private school and prep school zone.

  6. “’Progressive’ educators, loudly and in large numbers, insist that students should be taught ‘thinking skills’ as opposed to memorization.”

    A little research on their part – they could Google it, in fact – would demonstrate the fatal flaw in the thinking as demonstrated by Henry Ford. He belittled higher education, scoffing that everything college graduates knew could be put onto phonograph records, and, rather than waste time and money on education, he could simply pull one of those records down from the shelf – the 1920’s equivalent of Googling – and play it in the unlikely event he needed to know something.

    Ford was obviously a brilliant analytical thinker. He could creatively solve technical problems with the best in history. His incredible ignorance of some fairly basic facts, however, created his lasting legacy of the Peace Ship fiasco, his ranting about the ‘International Jew’, and his infamous quote “all history is bunk” uttered during a trial as a defensive reaction to the opposing lawyer exposing him as a great inventor, but a very, very ignorant man.

    Great thinkers without solid factual knowledge may have the occasional great idea, but on the whole, they spend a lot of time reinventing wheels, missing obvious solutions that others have already developed, and pursuing theories a little knowledge of history and the wider world would demonstrate to be unworkable.

    Another way to look at the concept is the matter of the American Indians and the fact that they saw a wheel for the first time in the 1500’s, 1600’s or later – depending on when they saw their first Europeans – a full 5,000 years after wheels became commonplace in Europe. That doesn’t speak too highly of Native American creative thinking and problem solving skills, but the lack of such skills would not have held them back so much had they been able to Google and learn that such a thing as a wheel had been invented. The person with deep factual knowledge gets to take advantage of everyone else’s creative solutions, while the idea men, ignorant of facts, have to figure everything out for themselves.

  7. Subotai:

    It’s very hard to tell, though, to what degree the charter school students’ success is due to their curriculum. It just might be that the children whose parents care enough about being involved in their education to send them to this school would have done well in any school.

  8. Interestingly, in stating,

    “But the cure is to provide the context, not to throw out facts and knowledge altogether”,

    ….you have just stated one of the primary tenets of Project Based Learning. Give students a context that motivates them to gain knowledge (AND skills), and anchors that knowledge in an experience, so that it is more lasting.

    Perhaps there are some progressive educators who aren’t interested in students garnering substantive knowledge, but in my 4+ years working to create schools that are Project-Based, I haven’t met any.

  9. Note also in the teacher’s post:

    “So, how does my school help build the much-hyped 21st century skills? Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.”

    Note the bizarre assumption that real-world business activity is entirely about logos, slogans, promotional videos, and press releases. The point that before promoting anything you have to have something to promote–an actual product or service–seems entirely lost.

  10. David,

    I did. Truth be told – I found this posting via that blog. Full disclosure: I taught at a NT school, and I now coach for NTN. Alas, her characterization of PBL is unlike the good PBL instruction that I see, and it is certainly not characteristic of the way we train teachers. You’ll see in the comments section that no NT teacher chimes in, and says, “yeah! she’s right!”. In fact, immediately after this blog was posted, I sent out an email to no less than 100 NT teachers, with a simple question: “what do you think? Is this accurate?” – because I would be seriously concerned if any of the teachers I coach felt this way, or were dismissing content. Number of responses to my email that resonated with the contentions by “Emma”: zero.

    In our world, content comes first, but the teachers also formally teach, assess and grade performance in skills like collaboration, presentation, and critical thinking. PBL is the best conduit for doing so. But let me reiterate, lest there is confusion: Standards, and content come first. We do not view the “content vs standards” debate to be productive, nor generally accurate.

    If you are interested, I have written about one school that started in my home town:

  11. Thank, Kevin.

    I have seen many, many stories in which various education “experts” have been quoted on the unimportance of learning content based on the “just google it” argument, so I don’t think this is an imaginary issue. I’m glad to hear there are some with a more balanced attitude.

  12. Zenpundit,

    If you mean that it is difficult and expensive to administer valid and reliable standardized tests that measure analytical skills, the ability to synthesize and draw analogies, that is correct. It is, however, not impossible.

    I disagree because it is the basic nature of the test that the person creating the test knows all the answers. It is the purpose of critical thinking to generate novel answers. As a result, any attempt to measure “critical thinking” will either measure something else or will simply measure a students ability to follow along a well worn intellectual rut.

    A lot of very intelligent and notionally educated people lack true critical thinking skills. E.g. At present, 17.4% of liberal-arts professors are self-described Marxist.

    True critical thinking skills can only be tested by real-world empiricism.

  13. David Foster,

    Note the bizarre assumption that real-world business activity is entirely about logos, slogans, promotional videos, and press releases.

    Educators are manipulative-intellectuals in a subculture of manipulative-intellectuals. When they think creative and “real-world” their minds instantly gravitate to some kind of manipulative communications and, as a practical matter, such projects are easier and safer to do in a school. Most educators simply don’t have any idea how the world outside of academia works at all.

  14. Bill Waddle,

    …would demonstrate the fatal flaw in the thinking as demonstrated by Henry Ford. He belittled higher education…

    Actually, most the great inventors of the Era of Inventors (1870-1930) were scornful of the “highly” educated mostly because the “highly” educated kept telling the inventors that something was impossible right before the inventor proved it was.

    E.g.Prior to the 1930s, scientist were often more of an impediment to inventors than a help. The model of electrical flow that physicist used from Maxwell to Rutherford (1850-1920) was seriously wrong. It caused them to misunderstand all kinds of properties of materials that would eventually be used to create all the first generation of electrical devices. Both the lightbulb and the Edison tube were considered physically impossible by the physics models of the day. Sperry was told his gyros wouldn’t work. Ditto for the common wisdom about business models as well. Westinghouse, Edison and Ford were repeatedly told by Ivy League types that they couldn’t make a go of building a business around some new technology.

    It was really just right before WWII that the professional engineer and scientist began to displace the inventor as the primary driver of technology. Before then, the educated where having to rewrite their theories to keep up with inventors.

  15. Hi Shannon,

    “A lot of very intelligent and notionally educated people lack true critical thinking skills.”


    “True critical thinking skills can only be tested by real-world empiricism.”

    You have just excluded the theoretical physicists.

    Insight and critical thinking often precede our ability to conduct an empirical investigation, or, alternatively, inspire us to do so. The reverse is also true; emprical investigation and testing/tweaking/tinkering activity can generate new insights and cause us to reflect critically.

    “I disagree because it is the basic nature of the test that the person creating the test knows all the answers.

    Not tests of ability to generate convergent or divergent answers. Generally, these are scored for quantity, originality,range of difference, flexibility, number of domains, associative relationships and so on.

    “It is the purpose of critical thinking to generate novel answers.As a result, any attempt to measure “critical thinking” will either measure something else or will simply measure a students ability to follow along a well worn intellectual rut.”

    I think you are defining critical thinking more narrowly than most psychometricians or psychologists would.

    Some kinds of critical thinking, like synthesis and “creative” or “lateral” thinking are intended to generate novel answers but not all aspects of critical thinking. Analytical reductionism, for example, often leads to orthodox answers and, at times, the limited set of correct answers or “the” answer. Moral and evaluative judgment is another form of critical thought, often considered the “highest” or most complex, but is usually unoriginal(and,arguably, is most dangerous and revlutionary when it demonstrates *true* originality).

  16. with each team member receiving the same grade at the end.

    Am I the only one bothered by this? I was exposed to some of this kind of thing in college (several years ago now) and it was always a disaster. It IS educational, but I’m not sure it teaches what they think it teaches.

    I’ve seen it defended as “the way it will work out in the real world.” I think the differences overwhelm the similarities. Starting out with the fact that in a class you don’t have any incentives to offer. Seems like the kind of thing that could only be dreamed up by economically ignorant collectivists or the very naive.

  17. Thinking skills are hardware not software
    thus cannot be taught.

    (I come to this conclusion after 47 years experience
    as a mathematics teacher.)

  18. I grew up memorizing poems in school (“one if by land and two if by sea” “the murmuring pines and the hemlocks”) and the addition and multiplication tables. I can look at a scattering of coins on a store counter and give the sum without actually adding up the values. I never hated it. It was a challenge and it was fun.

    Just like riding a bicycle with my bare feet on the handlebars was a challenge and fun. My brothers traded baseball cards and knew endless statistics about batting averages and other baseball things. On vacation car rides we would compete to name out of state license plates and state capitals.

    I have never understood where is was that these teachers came up with the idea that kids don’t like to learn things. Kids make up things to learn. Maybe they don’t learn Longfellow now, but they certainly learn song lyrics and the intricacies of online games.

    But in truth, I do know where the teachers came up with the idea that it was boring to learn. They came up with it in teacher training, where they were bored. And some of them went on to write textbooks about how learning is boring. I know this because I spent 30 years helping to produce educational textbooks and sorrowfully I am no longer proud of my life’s work.

    Some of the books in the early years of my career were written by experts in the field; I worked on many revisions of Macgruder’s American Government. But since about the early eighties most textbooks have been written by committees of teachers fleeing the classrooms. And many of them are worthless.

    The math textbooks are a swamp of gooey theory, manipulatives, and group activities. The reading books (I would not call them literature) are maudlin stories of dysfunctional families with 3rd grade vocabularies. And the social studies texts are liberal PC propaganda. The science textbooks have to find endless examples of minority scientists to laud and honor, so I have proofed years of praise of Rachel Carson who can be thanked for there being no DDT in Africa to kill the malarial mosquitoes.

    I often think that the textbook companies are not held responsible for their contribution to the abysmal state of education in this country,

  19. I agree with the sentiments of many above, that critical thinking cannot be taught without a repository of facts on board. The drive to teach critical thinking first is an attempt to skip necessary steps. Good readers no longer sound out each word, they read whole words or clusters. It does not follow that one can start with teaching whole words. It is not completely futile, as most children can learn to skip steps without realising it – unconsciously fastening onto the two “z’s” in pizza and extrapolating the whole word, for example. Some very bright children can do it so quickly that they are not perceived as going through the steps. Similarly in math. I did my multiplication from left to right rather than the traditional “carry the 2” method from the right. But it’s the same steps, just in a different structure and order.

    (Note: some savants may in fact be doing something different that we don’t understand, however. They are few enough to be disregarded for this discussion – though if we ever track down what they are doing…)

    There is something even more dire about teaching skills before knowledge: children learn to imitate what looks like critical thinking, but is in fact only a regurgitating of opinion.

  20. Your Cupid example assumes we care enough about the Jakob Dylan song to bother with what it means. In other words, we have to be intellectually curious.

    I’m not sure the modern educational establishment has even a minimal interest in intellectual curiosity. Which is the real root of the problem.

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