Sunday, July 30, 2006

Teaching Method: "But how do they know?"

I've previously suggested that schools should focus more on developing cognitive skills rather than the rote memorization of facts. As another aspect of this, we might consider how the facts are taught. Typically they're simply presented as unsupported testimony, ultimately resting on the authority of the teacher or textbook. This is lamentable in two respects: (1) It fosters bad intellectual habits: students should be taught to probe and question, not merely accept assertions at face value. (2) It does little to advance students' understanding of the topic at hand. Rather than baldly reporting the facts as we take them to be, educators should also impart how we came by the knowledge in the first place, and thus how curious students could (at least in principle) test it for themselves.

Situating knowledge in its historical context would give students a greater understanding and appreciation for their disciplines, and for how intellectual progress is made. It is no longer a "black box", as if facts found their way into textbooks by some inexplicable magic. By showing progress and discovery to be an ongoing human endeavour, more students could come to fully realize that this is an endeavour that they could contribute to also. For example: for many school students, the "scientific method" - the way they're taught to do science - consists in memorizing textbooks and rotely performing predefined lab tasks. Sometimes they're told to write up a lab report in terms of "hypothesis testing", but this seems tacky and artificial when it's so divorced from the way that everything else in their science class has been presented. Teaching science as a closed book fails to make clear to young students the vital role waiting for them if they choose to pursue the subject further. (And of course the same could be said of other fields too. A history textbook might be presented without any explanation of where it came from, or how actual historians go about their work.)

A more engaging style of teaching might go something like this: Begin with a problem, and explain why it's important. Brainstorm possible solutions, or ways one might begin to inquire further. (In early sessions, students may have no idea what to say here. But hopefully they would develop the skill after further exposure to this teaching method. If so, that would be a significant educational achievement in itself.) A skilled teacher might be able to subtly guide the class discussion in the right direction, ultimately enabling them to "solve" the problem themselves. In any case, you can offer a basic account of historical methods for resolving it. The crucial point here is that you teach more than just the end result -- the "brute facts" accepted by relevant authorities. You also teach how they know it.

By teaching disciplinary methods to young students, the hope is that, in addition to better understanding the discpline, they will also be better prepared to use the methods themselves. Science classes should teach students how to be scientists, not merely indoctrinate them with what The Scientists have said. Similarly for history, and so on. Of course, part of this has to include a healthy respect for past research, and an adequately comprehensive knowledge of what those findings were, so I'm not advocating a total upheaval here. But it does seems to require an important change in perspective from the pure fact-imparting model of contemporary "schooling".



  1. Richard,

    I think you have a very Deweyian kind of thesis here. I am not so sure it feasible though, in large part because at first things need to be "brute fact"; in much the same way I take my experiences at brute fact, I don't begin questioning them at first I need that inital exposure in forming an initial pool of knowledge.

    Indeed, it would be a great thing to have them following a much more real and engaged method of learning but at the same time tools need to be developed before one begin things like experiments, regardless of whether they are just reported.

    I think what you suggest is provocative but it suggests an environment that I don't think exists in many places. It requires resources and skill (in students and teachers in particular) that if had would be remarkable in an unprecedented way. Indeed, I think you see some of what you are suggesting in private schools thuogh even there there is the reporting of facts.

    I may have jumbled my thoughts some but a nice post.

  2. It seems to me both are necessary. The problem I often see with schools is that it is one or the other whereas both are necessary. The second problem is that teachers are usually lousy at teaching cognitive skills. They think they are whereas they are actually teaching route learning but without the strengths of an actual focus on route learning. (i.e. you route learn principles that are only useful if you see them as skills)

  3. erik: I understand you as saying that the teaching of "cognitive skills" is more difficult (requires more material resources, and a higher sort of knowledge on behalf of the teachers) that the teaching of brute facts. But I am not sure that is the case. In History, for example, I think it just as easy for a student to learn the principles of historical methodology that it is for them to learn a set of facts about historical events. Things like "the unreliability of impressionistic evidence" and "the need to check the veracity of documents" and "the importance of overcoming cultural stereotypes" are not difficult to grasp. This largely because people use them (albeit often in an unreflective form) in their everyday life anyway, and so they are easy to grasp provided that they are taught in such a way as to bring out the connection between what the student is being taught and what they already know.

  4. I could not agree more, Richard. The difficulty, as other commentators have pointed out, is drawing a balance. I have to say that as someone who is reasonably adept at memorising facts, I always found the most enjoyable and satisfying history exams to be those where we were given sources and had to analyse and criticise them and draw inferences from them. Those are skills which I think have put me in good stead in the real world.

  5. Mike B,

    Let me say that I am not against the idea Richard supposes. I am, however, doubtful whether, at this point in history, we are in a position to adopt and implement a policy of the kind that Richard suggests. It is clear that much of this is going to be differentiated along subject and discipline specific terms. Particularly as we speak of the liberal arts and the sciences. The methods of the liberal arts are not the methods of the sciences.

    Indeed, the trick in finding a balance is determing whether these useful methodologies, as they are performed in say college, are applicable in the more nascent stages of elementary through high school stages. What Richard might be suggesting is a wholesale revision of the school and educational structure where we do away with the differentiation along grade levels and focus more on his suggested methodological cognitive skill and content development.

    If this latter point is his proposal even if in an oblique way it seems much more amenable as an implementable process vis-a-vis your historical or [insert disicipline] method. On the other hand, this kind of revisionism is problematic not so much at the policy level but more in the sense of the kinds of changes that I alluded to in my earlier set of comments. Indeed, it is not clear at all what such a sysytem would look like. Perhaps though, I have taken this conversation somewhere else and if this is so, I apologize, but I stand beside my first set of comments, and accept the thrust of Mike's comments.

  6. Students, when they are first being introduced to a subject, should not be exposed to the historical context. The historical context is only engaging and useful once students are familiar with the subject matter. Also, it's only useful when the skills or knowledge being taught is not so fundamental that going over its origins would turn the class into classical history.

    I think there is a really huge literature out there about all of this already. That makes me feel rather unqualified to talk about this.

  7. A few other thoughts on the education process. I think there is also value in group work. I am a double major in Architecture and Philosophy and I can say from plenty of experience that the group work in which you are forced to engage in architecture school forces you to understand material much more thoroughly than any classroom environment ever does. Group work does have to be setup properly though, because a teacher with no experience in it can set up terrible group projects.

    Also, I have always thoroughly enjoyed when a philosophy professor reads a standard textbook explanation of someone's work and gets irritated by how wrong it is and turns that into a lecture. It help teach students to question textbook definitions and explanations.

  8. Lots of interesting comments here... I'll just add in response to pdf23ds that if I refrained from writing whilst ignorant of the relevant literature, this blog would be a blank page ;-).

    I figure underinformed discussion beats no discussion at all, but I'd certainly welcome input from anyone who knows more about this stuff...

  9. One thing I like about your post, Richard, is that you avoid the false dichotomy, teaching facts vs. teaching skills, and frame it in terms of how the facts are taught. I think it's pretty obvious is that if you try to teach literature students 'Appreciation' or 'Criticism' you will end up failing miserably. What you need to teach is facts about literature -- things like meter, language rhythms, story structures, and so forth -- in such a way that students are also at the same time learning the skills for handling the facts in an intelligent way. And I think this applies, mutatis mutandis, to just about every field.

    Of course, it's a lot harder to do this than it sounds, and one thing that I think we need to keep in mind is that it's not only the teaching that leads students to fall back on memorization (or, when it gets even worse, cheating and plagiarism). Part of it is that students themselves fall back on it because, while it's a horrible way to learn, it's often an easier way to get by. (Easier in the sense that it's easier to buy macaroni and cheese at the supermarket rather than make it oneself, which is to say: it isn't, really, but some people think it is.) For the same reason I think we need to keep the practical side in mind. There are a lot of great teachers out there who are working hard to do exactly the sort of thing you are suggesting. But the results seem to be very mixed. This may be due in part to the sheer difficulty of the task, in part to inconsistency among teachers -- there are a lot of bad teachers, too (and it doesn't seem we have a way at present to reduce bad teachers and still have enough teachers to give everyone a minimum education) -- in part to student laziness, in part to the structure of the system, and to any number of things that would have to be taken into account.

  10. Perhaps, Richard, you should make a visit to a teaching college. I'm working on my masters in education at UMass Boston, and they've long been teaching that style.

    This past year, I was teaching Biology and Chemistry at Boston Latin School (an elite, urban, public school), and our curriculum for Biology (BSCS) was very much what you're suggesting. You may want to glance at a copy of the teacher's edition of the book. The entire department was aiming at higher-level goals.

  11. Richard, I've been meaning to reply to this piece of yours for some time. I largely agree with you here.

    You said for instance, "Typically [facts]are simply presented as unsupported testimony, ultimately resting on the authority of the teacher or textbook." And of course you're right. They are.

    You might enjoy a piece on precisely that point called 'The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education' published in 'The Objective Standard.' Only the first two paragraphs are available online to non-subscribers, but you can read excerpts at my blog, and you can hear the author Lisa Van Damme give a one-hour lecture on the subject at the announcements page of the VanDamme Academy website, which she runs.

  12. I encourage you to look into Eleanor Duckworth's "On the Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays" to see that what you propose is not simply less than a "total upheaval" but rather the tip of the iceberg.

    The structure is oft referred to as "constructivist education" and needn't require an "expert," per se, as you advocate, but a merely well-informed teacher who can herself learn new approaches to seeimingly well-understood problems even in the context of elementary education.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)