Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Content Dead?

In 2002, I sat in on a colloquium at my grad school where a professor was speaking about the power of the Internet. He spoke at long length about how we are teaching students the wrong things. He argued that information should no longer be taught in our schools. Any rote information, be it the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, or Newton's Laws of Motion, can always be looked up in a couple of seconds using the Internet. That was startling in 2002, but holds probably more validity now what I have the Internet in my pocket.

He argued that we should be teaching kids how to make better and better google searches and work on technology skills that will allow them to retrieve this information out of the ever-expanding mountain of data that is out there. He quoted statistics about how there are thousands of new papers published every day and that there was no way that anyone could keep up with the surging tide of knowledge that was flooding our world. Teach them how to get what they need when they need it, that was his philosophy. There was no need to actually know anything so long as you can have the information on hand when it was necessary.

I sat in silence in 2001 closing my eyes and hoping that his ideas would not pick up steam but fade into the black hole of educational reform agendas.

They did not.

I have read numerous blogs, several tweets, and sat through a few edchats to know that this loss of content knowledge is a real agenda on the minds of some educators. It has been over 10 years since this idea was proposed to me and my feelings on it have not changed. Let me spell out my reasoning.

Learning must occur in context. If put to the question, I would say that I am a constructivist in my educational philosophy. (If you do not know what constructivism is in education, you can always look it up. I am sure wikipedia has a great article on it.) I believe, as many educators and brain researchers do, that students learn by assimilating information to what they already know. In order to understand a concept, a person accesses some part of their brain where similar information is stored and links the new information to that.

In science, this is why identifying misconceptions is so important. If a student comes to us strongly believing in a misconception, it is imperative that that be drawn out before any new learning can take place. The experiences that we have had before coming to the classroom are just as valid to us as those we have in the learning environment.

I follow a learning cycle approach to teaching. I have chosen to stick with the simple 3-step model involving exploration, concept development, and finishing with application. This preliminary exploration phase is where I give the students a common experience for which we can draw new concepts from. In truth, I am asking them to access their preconceived schema and drawing out any misconceptions they have about the topic. This puts the learning in context with what they already have experienced, or in some cases fabricated an experience that the class can share in.

This is a missing piece in the "no rote learning" model. As an example. In 1999, I was offered a summer internship at the Mayo Clinic. I was to work in an orthopedic research lab studying cures for arthritis. Upon entering their lab, I ran across large research studies posted like movie posters on the wall. "Articular cartilage regeneration using periosteum" was not in my vocabulary. I understood two words in that title. It took me a while to gain the background knowledge, vocabulary, and skills needed to make a contribution to the lab. I was a smart guy, but this was completely out of my wheelhouse. I think over the summer, I may have done more harm than good in that place.

This is an extreme example. In all my schooling I was never introduced to these concepts and had to learn them from scratch. I was motivated to do so as I did not want to fail. I can only imagine what students would be like that had no rote knowledge to draw from.

There was a book published a while ago called Cultural Literacy- What Every American Needs to Know. In it, the authors outline basic knowledge that they believed American voters needed to know to contribute a contemporary society. They actually have a list of about 5000 words that should be in everyone's vocabulary. This goes to the other extreme, but I think there is some merit to the idea. In order for us to communicate, we need to speak the same language.

I was able to work at that orthopedic lab, as well as a particle physics research lab at the University of Iowa helping build the Compact Muon Solonoid in CERN, Switzerland due to the fact that I had a strong science background. I agree that students need skills in finding information, and that not everything can be taught in our schools, but a fundamental understanding of how the world works in necessary. Students need background information in order to learn new things.

Please comment and join in on the conversation. Where are you on the "content" spectrum?

Chris Like