Monday, January 18, 2010

We've created "...a Generation of Jay Leno Stooges"

I like reading Aaron Eyler's Synthesizing Education blog. He does a great job of discussing the interaction of education and technology in a way that isn't basic like a lot of education blogs, but keeps its feet on the ground so it doesn't become a wacky futurist blog. However, one of today's entries hit my nerve by implicating that rote memorization isn't needed these days because the amount of knowledge being created makes a lot of existing knowledge obsolete. I'm a big huge massive believer in the theories of E D. Hirsch that believes that state that a core area of knowledge must be passed on from generation to generation to ensure the continuance of free and egalitarian societies. Simply put, knowledge makes people free, and a culture that has a constant core of knowledge that spans generations engenders longevity and a concrete legacy. You may not believe his ideas about how it applies to society, but his agreement with cognitive scientists that a vital aspect of cognitive growth is memorization at young ages is something that most folks with common sense and experience with learning a foreign language as a child and as an adult (I took French in elementary school, and I decades later I can still read a French book without a lot of problems. I took Spanish in college and don't remember a lick) can attest to. Eyler's plea for us to ditch knowledge because we can look it up on Google peeved me to no end. As a result, yours truly shot back after a fantastic response that likened today's knowledge-less students as "a generation of Jay Leno stooges":

School isn’t just a centre created to produce workers–rather it is a centre of knowledge transmission for a society from one generation to another. In the quest to ensure our students adapt to the rapidly-changing world, we’ve deemed the recall of knowledge as irrelevant and somehow beneath us as educators that we have created a generation of adults who have zero capability to remember anything. By ignoring the research from cognitive scientists that persistently show that children’s brains are a fertile ground for permanent storage of knowledge if they memorize them between the ages of 6-11, we leave our students without the cognitive ability to store and retain knowledge after that age since the brain doesn’t know how to do it.
I teach at a school that is borderline failing. Most of the things discussed on this blog are but a gleam in my eye because I have more pressing needs like the fact that 80% of my seventh grade reading students read below a sixth grade level at over 50% through the school year. What my students need is not Socratic circles, questioning the author’s purpose, or any of the other literacy strategies my state’s DoE require me to teach because these kids can’t read with comprehension. Period. It makes no sense that I have to repeat concepts 20+ times for them to have the slightest bit of comprehension. It also makes no sense that they get the same questions incorrect on every single quiz I give when I leave the same questions in the exact same spots on said quizzes.
Whilst you may be onto something about the idea that every child needs to know about the siting of Grant’s guns during the siege of Vicksburg, by ignoring or marginalizing rote memorization, you have undermined the entire concept of a hierarchy of thinking by ignoring the foundation. How can someone evaluate something when they have no knowledge to base their opinions on? How can you synthesize new information when there is no prior information to use as a reference point?
By continuing this line of thinking, the dissemination of knowledge from generation to generation is lessening by the year, and before long we will have an entire underclass of people of all ethnicities and creeds bound together by the fact that they know nothing of substance. If that’s been the unconscious goal of education leaders to create such a stratified society consisting of knows and know-nots, then they can sit back and pat each other on the back; they’ve done their job.
Yeah, I went there. My professor of Social Studies Methods who's a massive fan of Howard Zinn (and Bruce Springsteen!) would be proud of my shot at creating good workers, but the rally cry for memorizing facts probably irks him. It's OK. When they're all lost and in dire need of directions and I pop in and save them due to all of the geography knowledge I had to memorize, they'll thank me later.

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