Knowledge Series Part 5: Response to Counter-Arguments

They Can Just look It Up

They can, but will they? And will doing so actually help them?

I’ve already explored the impact prior knowledge has on reading comprehension and on learning new information, both of which are relevant to students’ abilities to just look it up, but it merits revisiting here. To make use of the information online, we need to possess a foundation of knowledge. To quote Hirsch:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn.Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

There are other factors at play here as well. First, let’s start with their ability to find accurate information. Having background information on a topic helps students assess the reliability of a source. Yes, you can teach students about corroborating sources and doing research on the source itself, but having some knowledge on a topic helps as well. Michael Fordham demonstrates this with two passages on historical events, both with the same amount of misinformation. Read the article for yourself; I think you’ll find the inaccuracies easier to identify in one over the other, and this is because of the background information you possess.

The Goldhagen controversy is another example of how knowledge is important for evaluating sources, in this case a historical argument, even for people who are experts in the discipline. David Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners was based on his PhD dissertation and was endorsed by prominent historian Simon Schama. Following its publication, however, the book received scathing criticisms by Nazi specialists. Schama was an expert in early modern Europe and not an expert on Nazi Germany, and neither was Goldhagen’s PhD supervisor Stanley Hoffman. Despite their strong understanding of history as a discipline and how to construct historical arguments, both men needed knowledge of Nazi Germany in order to accurately evaluate Goldhagen’s argument. Indeed, in order to see that Goldhagen’s argument was built out of factual errors, overgeneralizations and cherry-picked evidence, you need to have deep knowledge on a topic. If evaluating a source requires background knowledge for the experts, it certainly requires background for our students.

Students also need to apply the information they look up to the task or text, such as aiding their reading comprehension or choosing words for a writing assignment. Dictionaries often contain multiple definitions for a word, and the students need to take the time to decide which definition is appropriate for the context. Or dictionaries are often constrained for space and do not offer precise definitions and enough sample sentences, leading students to misuse the words in their writing. Which is to say, it helps to teach vocabulary in lessons, using high-quality instruction, rather than relying on Google to fill the gaps.  

Speed also becomes a factor. If the student is pausing too frequently to look things up, then the task takes longer and reading comprehension deteriorates with all the pauses. This new information is also occupying space in working memory, in order to be applied to the situation. The more the student is looking up, and the less pulled from long-term memory, the greater the likelihood the student will experience cognitive overload.

In one of my urban geography courses in university, we were assigned an article on postmodern cities (unfortunately, I am unable to find the article, so we’ll have to rely on my memory). The authors of the article introduced a lot of new terms very quickly, each with a definition, which they would then use later in their discussions. I couldn’t keep up with all the new words, couldn’t follow the argument, and eventually gave up altogether. Years later, I can recognize it as cognitive overload. For me, “looking up’ the words required just turning back a page, but it still wasn’t enough; my comprehension would have been better if I could have pulled the meanings from my long-term memory. If ‘just looking it up’ can’t always work for a university student, how is it a realistic strategy for our students?

There is also the problem of motivation. If students are constantly confused and stopping to look things up, they may lose interest entirely. I know I do. You may say that we should encourage grit and persistence, but many students need to experience success in order to keep trying; as discussed before, achievement leads to motivation. If we know that knowledge helps with achievement, let’s give students the support they need to be successful, rather than relying on Google. Even as adults it is impractical to always be looking things up; we quickly make judgements using the information in our heads.

Finally, you also need to know what to look up: to know what you don’t know. Which is hard. A student might not be aware of inferences not being made, connections being missed, examples that can be used, perspectives that can be included. Knowledge in long-term memory is easily accessible, and can be supplemented, not replaced, with information from the internet.

We Don’t Want to Return to Rote Memorization

I don’t either.

I don’t think anyone who promotes knowledge is advocating for rote memorization. Our goal is not for students to excel at pub quizzes, spitting out disconnected and decontextualized facts, but to be thoughtful and informed.

Part of this concern comes from what knowledge-focused teaching looks like. Daniel Willingham makes the distinction between flexible and inflexible knowledge (which I find to be more useful categories than knowledge and understanding). Rote memorization is “memorizing in the absence of meaning,” which no one wants our students to do. When people think of rote memorization, they are actually thinking of inflexible knowledge, tied to a concept’s surface features; in the long-run, what we seek is flexible knowledge, which can be applied to new contexts. However, knowledge is initially inflexible when first learned, which is why it seems like those who promote knowledge promote rote memorization. As we use the knowledge and gain more related knowledge, schemas in the mind form and knowledge becomes flexible.

And rote memorization is a pretty poor method of teaching students knowledge. The memories are stronger if the facts are elaborated upon, connections are made, and stories are told.

Students having access to concrete facts can also support them in higher-order thinking skills, such as analytical thinking. Take the example of memorizing dates in history, the classic bogeyman for those opposed to memorization in school. In history, dates are a tool; they place events, people, and developments in a chronological context. By knowing dates, students can pick up on causation and how one event can lead to another, or how the experiences of a particular social group can change over time. Learning dates equips them to better understand the past and to “get better at history.”

Finally, when I think of the criticisms of emphasizing knowledge and promoting memorization, I think of World Scholar’s Cup. The founder Daniel Berdichevsky described it in a speech at the 2017 Yangon Round as a “celebration of knowledge.” With their knowledge, students link epidemics to a zombie apocalypse, recognize the styles of famous composers in songs from TV shows, and discuss the role of superheroes in society. It is a celebration of knowledge and requires knowledge for success. It is not rote memorization.

We Can’t Ensure the Knowledge We Teach Will Remain Relevant and Accurate

I think there are two parts to this concern. First, that we don’t know what knowledge will be useful for students in the unpredictable job market of the future. Secondly, that knowledge becomes outdated in light of new discoveries.

It is easy to dismiss the first concern by saying that education does not exist to service the economy, and the job training is the responsibility of employers, not schools. But I won’t take the easy way out, considering how much the statistic that 65% of the jobs our students will have don’t exist yet is uncritically tossed about. This statistic has already been assessed by others, but merits some discussion here. The concern is about a rapidly changing world and an unpredictable future, but the world has been in this rapid state of change for at least a few decades now, and concern about the jobs of the future is not new. So how many of the jobs of today did not exist 10 years ago? Slice lists the highest-paying and most in-demand jobs in Canada in 2017 as follows:

  1. Primary production managers
  2. Miners, oil and gas drillers
  3. Physicians and dentists
  4. Registered nurses
  5. Mental health and social services professionals
  6. HR recruiters
  7. Information security analysts
  8. Marketing analysts
  9. Education jobs
  10. Engineers

With the exception of information security analysts, all those are jobs that have been around for a while.

Even if the technology is changing, we learn new skills and knowledge more effectively when we have robust and well-developed schema, and even new jobs will draw on the same base of knowledge and skills as current jobs. Knowledge gives our students the ability to adapt to a changing world.  

As well, the rapid change of our world might be over stated, including concerns about how technology will change the workforce.

Which brings us to the second concern. Knowledge becoming inaccurate and outdated is inevitable, but this is neither a new phenomenon nor a reason to not teach knowledge. New discoveries are more significant in light of what we thought before; such as the recent evidence on an ancient flood in China and the implication for our understanding of the presumed-mythical Xia dynasty.

As well, we can equip our students to be initiating and researching these new discoveries, if they are equipped with a body of knowledge and know what ideas they are challenging. To quote Richard Feynman, “[y]ou’re unlikely to discover something new without a lot of practice on old stuff.”

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