Which Facts Do We Need?
Today was my first “real” class with my MIT students in 11.125, Understanding and Evaluating Education. They are a bright, thoughtful, engaged group, and I am really looking forward to getting to know them better and learning from them.
Photo Credit: Librado Romero NYT
I awoke and flipped open my iPad to check the news, and was delighted to see two terrific articles in the education section of the New York Times. Today, I want to write a bit about “Second Grade Visits the Parking Garage” as it ties together quite a number of things I’ve been mulling over.  Michael Winerip’s article takes us deep into the question of “facts.” What kinds of knowledge do you have to have at your fingertips in order to create new knowledge? This was a question that my 11.125 began the class wrestling with, as we read from John Bransford’s excellent (and free) How Students Learn. Bransford introduces three key learning principles– two of which have to do with facts. The first principle is that all learning builds on prior learning, so all teaching needs to engage prior knowledge. The second principle is that students need to learn facts nested within conceptual schema. You can’t teach concepts without facts, and you can’t teach facts without concepts. If you need to give smart students a 1 hour introduction to applied cognitive science, Bransford is the best place to start. In Winerip’s article, he describes a series of field trips taken by low-income, urban second graders to collect more facts about different parts of the world. For instance, many of these students have never been in a car. It’s very difficult to read books and stories about cars and driving if you have never been in a car. You don’t necessarily know all the parts or the conventions or the experience. Even if these second graders can look up certain car-related words in a dictionary, the cognitive demands of thinking about “what a car is” are likely to be so high that they’ll miss the point of the reading, even if they can decode the words. So these second grade teachers take students out to an auto body shop to sit in cars, in the hopes that such knowledge will support their comprehension of car related prose in the future. There is good evidence that this approach of developing strong factual knowledge to support conceptual understanding is quite important. Indeed, this principle is what launched E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy/Core Knowledge movement. Hirsch’s argument is not that students need a certain cultural literacy to be assimilated into the dominant culture–it’s that if you don’t know enough stuff in your head, you can’t read and comprehend as much. Students with more facts in their brain are better able to decode texts that reference facts. (I’m assigning this article to my students to get an intro to Hirsch:  E.D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy). All of this connects, as well, to various arguments made by some of my more progressive, ed tech advocate colleagues, who often appear to me to take a “facts are no longer needed position.” To some extent, for instance, Will Richardson takes this position in his recent Room for Debate contribution.
For one thing, we have to stop asking questions in classrooms that students can now answer with their phones (state capitals anyone?) and instead ask questions that require more than just a connection to answer — questions that call upon them to employ synthesis and critical thinking and creativity, not just memorization. Anything less is not preparing them for the information rich world that we live in.
The idea is that in a Google-able world, we no longer need to have as many facts at our fingertips, since we can just look them up. Some things that we used to memorize in school are perhaps no longer worth memorizing. To take this point too far, however, is to ignore the key insights from cognitive science that demonstrate that having facts an instant-away on Google may still be too far. If students don’t have enough factual content in their head, they simply won’t have the building blocks of conceptual understanding or further factual knowledge (To be fair, Will clarifies later that he doesn’t advocate not learning facts, just only testing students on facts, but I do think the “stop asking questions” argument pushes too far). Of course, other cognitive science studies show that the brain operates on a use it or lose it principle, so facts that aren’t applied in some way tend to wash away. One of the most important challenges for educators in the century ahead will be figuring out which facts in our current curriculum are superfluous, and which are so important that we do need to teach them to students thoroughly enough that they have instant access to those facts.  For some kids in poor neighborhoods, a special effort needs to be made to teach students about parts of society that middle class students take for granted.