Last week I was amused to read that St Petersburg has erected a statute to the Glasgow chemist Thomas Thomson despite the fact that he had absolutely no connection to the Russian city.
St Petersburg authorities had wanted to pay tribute to the French architect Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, who designed many of the city’s iconic neo-classical buildings. However, the project’s chief sculptor, Alexander Taratynov, made the mistake of using Wikipedia to help him create his work.
Taratynov told the American magazine Newsweek: “I was the project’s main artist and I am responsible for everything. Information for the work was of course taken from Internet resources. However, as our diligent people who are interested in history have rightly noticed, there has obviously been a mistake.”
He added: “We did not refer to historians. We were confident that the Internet would give us the correct information.”
Some high profile education personalities make the mistake of thinking we live in a world where technology has replaced knowledge and we must prepare young people for jobs that haven’t yet been invented, perhaps by developing 21st Century skills.
These ‘experts’ also believe the industrial model of education is dead because we live in an internet age where you can ‘just Google it’. Knowledge doesn’t matter, they say, because knowledge is easily accessible on the web. What matters, therefore, are workplace skills such as team-work and problem-solving.
But there’s a fundamental flaw with this argument as illustrated by the story of the St Petersburg statue: you can’t just Google it because acquiring new knowledge requires existing knowledge and we process new information within the context of what we already know.
Taratynov needed knowledge of what de Thomon looked like before searching Wikipedia for a photo in order to avoid mistaking the picture of Thomas for that of de Thomon.
E D Hirsch argues that, “Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasising factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively.”
Hirsch goes on to say that, “To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.”
It may sound paradoxical, but it’s a theory easily tested…
The cognitive scientist George Miller conducted an experiment whereby pupils were asked to look up definitions in a dictionary and then use those words in a sentence of their own construction. Miller was given sentences such as ‘Our family erodes a lot’ meaning they frequently eat out, and ‘Mrs Morrow stimulated the soup’ meaning she stirred the broth.
Commenting on Miller’s study, Hirsch said that although “Miller is in favour of dictionaries in appropriate contexts where they can be used effectively… those contexts turn out to be the somewhat rare occasions when nuances of meaning can be confidently understood.”
In his book Why Don’t Our Students Like School? the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that “Thinking well requires knowing facts, [and] critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving are intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory.”
Knowledge really is power.
As John Sweller (2011) said, “Novices need to use thinking skills. Experts use knowledge.”
Knowledge in long-term memory is essential in helping make sense of new information because, amongst other things, it improves reading comprehension and critical thinking…
Knowledge in long-term memory is essential for reading comprehension because, although the ability to decode words is transferable to different texts, pupils are more likely to understand a text if they have prior knowledge about the topic. Put simply, the more you know about a topic, the more effectively you can read a text on that topic and understand it. If I asked you to read a text on, say, nuclear physics or macroeconomics, you’d probably struggle to make full sense of it because some of the words would be unfamiliar and many of the concepts certainly would be. However, if I asked you to read an article on teaching strategies, you’d probably fare well, bringing your prior knowledge to bear on the words and meanings contained within the text.
Knowledge in long-term memory is also essential for critical thinking. Critical thinking – often regarded as a transferable skill that can be taught in isolation – cannot occur if a pupil does not have sufficient foundational knowledge on the topic being discussed. In history, for example, in order for pupils to be able to reason effectively about chronology and cause and effect, they must know enough curriculum content. Teaching pupils about history in an abstract way doesn’t work as well as arming them with lots of knowledge with which to better understand the way the world works. In maths, pupils need to be taught through worked examples rather than unstructured problems. And in science, pupils need to be taught the knowledge gained through scientific discovery not necessarily how science discovered that knowledge. Facts matter. Put simply, you cannot be critical about something of which you are ignorant (although, admittedly, that doesn’t stop Nigel Farage from trying).
In a new 6-part series for SecEd magazine which starts in September, I will explore what I believe to be the central tenets of an effective curriculum and I will share my advice on how to design such a curriculum and then, crucially, deliver it in your classroom.