Advocating for the teaching of knowledge to kids

Having been in the Canadian education system for a few years now, I am very impressed with the high-minded ideals of the early education system here. Things like teaching critical thinking, creativitiy, breaking down a problem, LID, etc are challenging and interesting, and meant to get a jump on the future. However it is pretty unsettling how little our kids actually know.

A few weeks ago I tweeted a recommendation for this piece on skills vs knowledge-based curriculum in The Atlantic. This is an extract from The Knowledge Gap, a book by Natalie Wexler that challenges the shift in elementary education away from teaching knowledge (often derisively referred to as “rote learning”) to teaching skills “that will enable [students] to discover knowledge for themselves later on.” Wexler covers some of the history in the article, but I think her argument can be captured in the example she gives about an experiment in reading comprehension using baseball:

… they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

[The researchers] chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text—more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

There is a lot more in the article (read it!) — but it really hit me coming from an international family. We are always straddling the line between the British Columbian education system and the system “back home.” Furthermore, my day job is related to the US education system and kids’ education is probably the main topic of discussion amongst our immigrant friends, all who bring different perspectives. There is a lot of (amateur) comparative analysis going around, and a lot of confusion. Wexler’s article really captures one of the main challenges in understanding elementary education here when you come from Asia. It also makes me wish there was a way to mash the East with the West.

Now, I bring this article up again after reading an intriguing essay on developing transformative tools for thought. This essay argues for a new ways to leverage technology for efficient memorization techniques. It is adjacent to the “skills vs knowledge” argument from the above article, but hits some of the same notes.

For example, Matuschak and Nielsen present a caricature of a “skills first” proponent:

“Why should I care about memory? I want deeper kinds of understanding! Can’t I just look stuff up on the internet? I want creativity! I want conceptual understanding! I want to know how to solve important problems! Only dull, detail-obsessed grinds focus on rote memory.”

This sounds so much like the “we teach concepts not memorizing facts. The students can look up facts on the internet!” that I have heard from local elementary teachers.

Matuschak and Nielsen then go on to illustrate some challenges experienced in teaching quantum physics:

He noticed that people often think they’re getting stuck on esoteric, complex issues. But, as suggested in the introduction to this essay, often what’s really going on is that they’re having a hard time with basic notation and terminology. It’s difficult to understand quantum mechanics when you’re unclear about every third word or piece of notation. Every sentence is a struggle.

It’s like they’re trying to compose a beautiful sonnet in French, but only know 200 words of French. They’re frustrated and think the trouble is the difficulty of finding a good theme, striking sentiments and images, and so on. But really the issue is that they have only 200 words with which to compose.

So, in order to understand concepts, you need a certain fundamental layer of knowledge. I am not advocating a total swing back to a Confucian-centric pedagogy — there is certainly a balance to be had. We struggle with this as we try to support our kids’ learning from home. It would be ideal if schools took advantage of those little sponge-like young brains in their early years and filled them full of facts before introducing higher-order thinking skills. But in lieu of that, I suppose it is up to us parents to provide them with actual knowledge (eg. in the forms of structured textbooks, encyclopedia, atlases, etc.) to fuel the skill-based curriculum they get at school. We have tried a few things (tutors, workbooks from other education systems, etc) but are always looking to improve. If you have any recommended resources or techniques for supporting your kids, please share!

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