Monday, January 31, 2005


Most of us would probably agree with Calvin that rote memorization isn't what education should be about. I'm tempted to go even further and suggest that schools shouldn't focus so much on facts. That's not to say they should teach falsities, of course. Rather, they should focus on imparting skills - "know how", rather than propositional ("know that") knowledge. Logic, critical analysis, precis writing, computer skills, research skills, etc. To some extent schools do teach these things, but there's certainly room for improvement. For instance, some basic philosophy should be taught in schools - everyone could use a bit of training in logic and critical thinking.

I've heard it argued that the curriculum is too full, forcing teachers to rush through topics at the cost of exploring ideas in any real depth. If this is the case, it shouldn't be. The goal should not be to cram as much information as possible into students' heads. They soon forget it all, anyway.

Even if our memory for factoids was better, the advent of the internet has, I think, changed the role of the teacher somewhat. Almost limitless information is now accessible - the trick, of course, is knowing where to find it. So rather than imparting information, teachers might do better to teach their students how to find reliable information for themselves.

Even more important is to change mere information into knowledge, and for that in turn to develop into understanding. Guiding this process should, I think, be the teacher's main role. Quickly forgotten isolated factoids don't even make it to the second stage [knowledge], and they certainly don't contribute much to our overall understanding. Learning a whole bunch of pointless facts is just... well, pointless.

That's not to say that there's never a place for rote memorization of facts. Memorizing times tables is probably well worth it - making this information internally accessible not only saves a lot of time, but may also improve one's understanding of numbers and their interrelations. One might argue along similar lines that there would likely be some (slight) benefit to internalizing almost anything. The question is whether this is worth the opportunity costs. I'm sure there must be better things for young chemistry students to do than memorize the order of elements in the periodic table.

High school science in particular might do better to be taught differently. Science is presentated as stable collection of facts about the world - a closed book (a textbook) - rather than an ongoing method of inquiry. With the possible exception of biology, there's little sense of continuing progress, no sense of historical context, and the level of interest suffers in consequence. As noted in that Phil Mole article I've previously quoted, this approach leaves students with a rigidly naive understanding of science, one that is dangerously vulnerable to criticism and disillusionment.

My general impression is that science (especially physics) is taught with too much technical information (e.g. maths equations) and not enough conceptual understanding. That's not surprising, since it's much easier to teach an algorithm than to explain what it actually means. But for people receiving a general education, I would think the latter is much more important. Rather than providing a technical preparation for engineers and such, high school should provide a broader (conceptual) understanding of science and scientific theories, rather than narrowly focusing on its technical applications. (The more technical aspects could easily be taught at introductory tertiary level, for those who require it.)

I saw a news-doco on TV a while back which suggested that NZ primary schools, at least, are heading more in this (extra-factual) direction. One slightly disturbing feature of it was that the driving force was some wacky woman who apparently cared more about making kids feel good than actually teaching them anything. We were shown a circle of kids taking turns at affirming their own inherent brilliance: "I'm a genius at math!", one insisted. "I'm a genius at drawing!", says the next. I may not be a genius, but I seriously doubt that encouraging such delusions in young children is going to help their later development.

That's not to say that self-esteem is always bad. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings identifies three different sorts of "self esteem":
(a) Having the self-confidence to actually think, objectively, about how good a person you are, and to seriously entertain the possibility that you should conclude that you are not a very good one, as opposed to fleeing from anything that might force you to evaluate yourself...

(b) Thinking that you matter enough that it matters how good a person you are...

(c) Thinking that you are, in fact, a good person, or good in some particular respect...

If, instead of self-examination, you opt for always thinking you're just great, regardless of whether it's true or not, then I would have thought that would get in your way whenever you'd do better by actually recognizing some fault and trying to correct it. And I see no reason to think that inculcating this sort of disregard for the truth in children is a good thing.

On the other hand, the idea that (a) and (b) really matter to being a good person, or a successful one, seems to me quite plausible.

I entirely agree. It's important that kids have a sense of self-worth [i.e. (b)], and a good teacher may help develop that (though parents no doubt play a much larger role here). But it need not be artificially inflated. Kids should know that they don't need to be geniuses in order to be valuable people. Having said that, I do agree that it's important that kids realise that they can achieve at school, if they're willing to put the work in. But that's quite a different matter from raising unrealistic expectations (the teacher in the news-doco called all her students "potential Einsteins", which is surely going too far), let alone pretending this potential has already been realised.


  1. Im not sure you can say what a teacher should do until you have defined an objective for teaching.
    If you try to talk about what should be done before you know what we are trying to achieve your putting the cart before the horse.

    I think you get in trouble when you make very complex social goals part of an objective somthign simple like "preparing students to best bmeet the demands of employment seems like a good starting point to me. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  2. My (probably) next post will be on the role of schools more generally. But since this one is specifically on 'education', it certainly is legitimate for you to ask what sort of things should be getting taught as part of this. I think the main post gives a basic outline of my thoughts here (i.e. imparting general skills and understanding). If anyone disagrees with those suggestions then I'd be curious to hear why in more detail... 

    Posted by Richard

  3. Regarding physics, it's almost impossible to understand the concepts without the math. The math is very important. I've taught and tutored people in both the regular freshman physics classes as well as classes tailored towards humanity students. While the different mindsets obviously will bias the effects, the fact is that it is very hard to get a conceptual grasp of the topic without working through the math. One can do it with less math, of course. It's possible to teach classic physics using only algebra and not calculus, for example. But students really are robbed of a lot of the understanding.

    For some topics, such as AC circuits, I honestly think it very hard to teach at the best of times, but that the math is invaluable for helping generate comprehension.

    Once one gets to advanced physics, a little math really is necessary to have even a basic grasp of what is going on. In my experience all the many popular accounts of mondern physics one finds in the bookshelves ends up conveying very misleading ideas to readers. That includes books I'd consider extremely well written. The basic problem is once again math.

    I do agree with your basic thesis though. However I think that in pre-University science classes what ought be taught is a basic understanding of the scientific method along with the notion that science isn't purely about facts, but more about a way of knowing. That can be taught but is frequently neglected for the ease of route learning. (Which can also easily be tested) That's not to deny that some information needs taught. But I think understanding the basic scientific mindset is what is severely lacking in the world. 

    Posted by Clark Goble

  4. skills are just a list of actions that perform a certain function. Doing ANYTHING emparts you with general skills and understanding so it provides us with no guidance and worse yet no reason to prefer school to letting them wander the streets.

    What you must mean then are some sort of specific set of skills and understanding designed to help those peopel achieve specific objectives, somthing not easily available otherwise - the question is which ones?

    I think people intentionally leave the definition vague 9to the point of meaninglessness) because while no one can object to kids "learning" - many peopel wil object to them learning particular facts or ways of doing things. A "cop out" if you will. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  5. Clark - fair enough, I admittedly don't know much about physics myself. Though I didn't mean to suggest that it should be taught purely conceptually, with no math at all. Just that it needs a bit more balance. My experience of high school physics class was basically just a case of applied mathematics - which is fine for me since I like maths anyway, but I didn't learn much physics from it. Certainly not as much as I've since learnt from various pop-science and philosophy of science introductions. I guess what I'm saying is that conceptual understanding should be the goal here, and teachers should employ as much math as is necessary or helpful to obtain that goal.

    I very much agree with your final paragraph.

    GeniusNZ - I listed some of the skills I had in mind in my introductory paragraph: "Logic, critical analysis, precis writing, computer skills, research skills, etc." But this list is very much up for debate if you have any specific suggestions? 

    Posted by Richard

  6. Hmm I think that it is the ends that define the means but your above classes make a decent starting point since they move us in the direction of the most generally accepted ends.

    we could teach those students the above skills in a short time preferably as young as posible.
    imagine having this as your primary school corse
    class 1 "mega memory" class 2 "touch typing" class 3 "finding answers via google" class 4 "basic logic" (which seems to have bit of "how to avoid being tricked by english) class 5 "spotting flaws (in statements or pictures or systems or whatever)" class 6 "basc windows usage"
    45mins-1hr each about 200 and somthing classes each
    maybe shorten the classes and add basic maths and writing for comunication.

    a problem with not using factoids however is that it is much harder to fairly mark test that is not asking if you know certain facts. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  7. I think facts have a role. The human mind works by association, sometimes in the strangest ways, and the more raw material the brain has to work with teh better.

    Learning how to learn is very important, but there is a place for a wide general knowledge and some useful fact cramming as well. 

    Posted by tomV

  8. I'd suggest the following addition to the list of skills that we'd like to see taught. As citizens in a democracy, we need to be able to critically assess the social and political institutions around us. To this end, I think that some basic theories and skills from disciplines like political theory and media studies would be useful. There is always the problem that if the state is entrusted with education that has political implications, it will use the education as means of propaganda. However, given the importance of these skills to the running of a transparent and accountable democracy where elections amount to more than merely wooing sufficient numbers of people with populist rhetoric, I think we need to seek a tamper-proof way of teaching these skills rather than simply removing them from our list as 'too hard to implement'.

  9. Yeah, good point.


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