Progressive Education's War On Knowledge

An educational futurist, in a video on Edutopia, objects to the teaching of data and information. That's the sort of thing, he sniffs, that Google can find.

The futurist wants a high-tech classroom where students work only on sophisticated projects, such as "Is there life on Mars?"

The futurist scorns traditional ways of teaching. For one thing, teachers wasted a lot of time on trivial stuff. His voice almost shakes with incredulity: "Teaching kids that 'In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue' -- why on earth waste time presenting that?"

The reasoning runs like this. Anything you want is on Google, so why bother learning anything? I worry that this is a destructive little sophistry. Let's think about it.

When I was a kid, all knowledge, for all practical purposes, was in the encyclopedias we had in our den or the school library. Did that mean I didn't need to learn anything? Quite the contrary. Just thumbing through the pages of those encyclopedias was confusing and overwhelming. It was then. It is now.

You need to have the anchor points, the organizational blueprint that arranges details in a logical way. In short, you need to know the fundamental stuff. You absolutely need to know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue!

Before discussing whether there is life on Mars, you need to know, for example, what Mars is; what life is; and why it's profoundly interesting to ask, "Is there life on Mars?" 

Today, Google is in effect an encyclopedia with a million times more information than the encyclopedias we knew years ago. So, while the search may be quicker, it's also far more complicated, disorienting, and nearly hopeless. How do young students know where to start, and what are the primary facts in a given field? 

The futurist does see the danger: "Just because they know how to control the technology doesn't mean they know how to judge the value or accuracy of information they may be finding." Exactly. Then he skips over his own caution. 

I want to suggest a model that describes all learning, and shows us the danger in the futurist's vision. This model states that the acquisition of knowledge starts with an armature, a skeleton. The armature, even when simple, lets you build elaborate structures on it.  

Without an appropriate underlying armature, everything can end up being a hodgepodge of unconnected information which makes no sense. That's why you have to teach children foundational knowledge. The younger that the students are, the more this is true.

It's worth noting that our Education Establishment has been disdainful of knowledge going back almost 100 years. Here's a quote from a textbook written in 1929 by Edward Thorndike and Arthur I. Gates, two of our leading educators: "Artificial exercises, like drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value."

Note the disdainful tone of voice. So much for history, language, arithmetic, and phonics! It's the same tone we hear in this video pitching the idea that we needn't bother with easy-to-find facts. 

At some point, however, we always come up against one of life's harsher truths. To those who have is given more. Certainly, in the case of knowledge, this is completely obvious. You first need a foundation on which you can build. To learn a lot, you first learn a little, which enables you to learn more, then more. 

Conversely, those who have little are likely to have even that taken away. We see these pathetic people, when Jay Leno goes Jaywalking, unable to answer the simplest questions.

The way you master any subject is to start with the basics and learn them in a coherent way, so that when you possess hundreds or even thousands of individual pieces of information, they all make sense to you.

Probably, geography provides the simplest paradigm. It used to be considered The Queen of the Sciences. (That our schools neglect it now is a warning sign.) You cannot study history, science or current events, you cannot study the environment, you cannot study much of anything unless you know the names of the oceans and continents, the rivers and mountains, the main features of the planet Earth. The fact that this information is readily available on Google or in an atlas isn't a good reason for not learning it. That's the sophistry, right there.

The futurist is obsessed with the fact that it's so easy to find information. He wrongly concludes that students don't need to acquire any. He focuses on the power of modern technology and all the fancy new ways to present information. But what could be easier than opening an encyclopedia and looking at the information? There it is, easy!

But how would children know how to do that efficiently? They have no sense of what's important or minor, what to read first, and what to go to next. Without a hierarchy of knowledge, you have intellectual and cognitive chaos. 

The futurist is fascinated by all the new technology, some of which lets him project information on the walls of the classroom. Great. But why is that conceptually different from a teacher showing a picture or scribbling a diagram on a blackboard? I submit it's not different (albeit much more expensive). 

The crucial thing is not the ease of presenting information but the easy coherence of the information presented. 

Love of technology shouldn't be an excuse for disdaining facts. It's not either/or. Why not more of both? Let's stop accepting shallow alibis for teaching less. 

Anyone can build great schools on these two premises: facts are fun and knowledge is power. Therefore, teach more. 

You'll know education is improving when you hear the Education Establishment brag about how they have figured out ingenious new ways to teach more facts.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education reformer. He founded in 2005; his site explains theories and methods.

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