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.