Challenging Conventional Wisdom, Indeed.

There is a great conversation going on over at the CASTLE book club blog (orange group) about the  teaching of facts and skills. I plan on posting this post over there but my login and password are stored on my home computer, I’m correcting procrastinating correcting English papers at work. For now, I will post it here and then cross post it there when I get home waaaaay later tonight.

We are reading Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham.

In A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom? posted by Michael Curtin, he questions Willingham’s first two chapters, one focusing on the primary need for teaching facts, and the other on the primacy of essential questions and individualization of the learning process. Michael asks,

…how does he reconcile this insistence on memorization of facts – after all, that’s what it boils down to – with his insistence that students’ curiosity is such an important part of learning.  How is a teacher to implement the suggestions from both chapters one and two: they seem contradictory to me.

The conversation that came out of this question is leading me to what, so far, is bothering me in this book. I’ve only read the first two chapters at this point and I don’t know how this will be reconciled later on, if at all.

If I agree with Willingham that “…factual knowledge makes cognitive processes work better…” (p.36) and that we need to increase our students’ background knowledge then I need to make the next step and decide what kind of background knowledge they need to work with when learning a particular concept or idea.

Art Titzel, in a comment to Michael’s post, writes,

As far as teaching new topics I believe there needs to be some pre-loading of factual information before we can expect students to critically think. This pre-loading of information should be meaningful to students and in context with the learning, not just rote memorization.

It is in choosing what information to pre-load where things get sticky. Willingham makes this statement about what facts learners need to know. It makes me cringe.

For reading, students must know whatever information writers assume they know and hence leave out. The necessary knowledge will very depending on what students read, but most observers would agree that a reasonable minimum target would be to read a daily newspaper and to read books written for the intelligent layman on serious topics such as science and politics. Using that criterion, we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males. From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the only choice in that case is to try to persuade writers and editors at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and so on to assume different knowledge on the part of their readers. I don’t think anyone would claim that change would be easy to bring about. It really amounts to a change in culture. Unless and until that happens, I advocate teaching that material to our students. The simple fact is that without that knowledge, they cannot read the breadth of material that their more knowedgable schoolmates can, nor with the depth of comprehension. (p.36)

Tell me, HOW are we going to change culture if not by starting with our students?

With that one paragraph, Willingham is supporting:

  • the persistence of outdated, patriarchal knowledge as most important
  • the persistence of science and politics as the upper echelon of knowledge
  • the division of class based on patriarchal ideas such as the primacy of scientific knowledge

I think he is also suggesting that the majority of writers write from this perspective.

He prefaces the paragraph by saying this has nothing to do with value judgments or politics, but merely with what is cognitively best for students. I think I need this explained to me again so I can understand how that is so. Is he really claiming that cognitive science is not influenced by culture?

What do you think about this?


  • David says:

    Very interesting post. I didn’t take what Willingham wrote the same way that you did. Perhaps because of the differences in what we teach?

    I teach history and often see students struggle with the meaning behind the words, thoughts, and ideas that authors “leave out.” For example, when doing a socratic seminar on a Newsweek article, students will struggle with what is really surface or superficial information or meanings that as an adult I am totally getting. Because they struggle in decoding that information they also then stuggle with the deeper meaning. So I think being sure they understand it in their terms and the author’s terms are important. (one of the reasons I love Socratic Seminar is because it is all about the students relating to each other in their language and getting their questions answered from their peers. obvious inferences that adults come to easily will surface as problems for them in that setting)

    I’m enjoying the book so far, I’m 1/2 way through and hoping I finish this weekend before my week long conference next week in Dallas. Thanks so much for suggesting it.

    • Tracy says:

      Thanks for these two comments, together they point towards something good. It’s not that kids don’t need to know facts. As you clearly illustrated, David, facts create context. I also teach history and some of our best classes are the ones that go out on tangents because we need to explore some background information to make what we are studying more meaningful. But, as Marcy pointed out, facts need to be culturally relevant.

      One of the arguments of structural theorists (I’ll try to find the exact reference one of these days…) is that school has no culture. That many students do not get that excitement from history, science, economics, literature, because they are taught from outside of the rich culture in which they exist as disciplines.

      You know what, I think I am going to be a bit lazy (only on sip 2 of this morning’s coffee) and copy a comment I just made over at the book club blog into here. It says what I want to say :)

      I am so not against kids needing to know stuff. We all do, it’s what makes us interesting people, for one thing. The purpose for knowing stuff (ok, facts) is so that we can ultimately create new stuff out of it – solve problems, design new environments, etc… I have no desire to create a new environment if I do not know why one needs to be created. Facts create the context for learning and creating.

      My contention with Willingham (and standardised testing, while we’re here) has to do with the kinds of facts students need to know. I can not accept Willingham’s argument, on p. 36, that the facts of “dead white men” need to stay relevant because they once were and we aren’t going to change the culture created by those facts any time soon so we may as well just teach those facts so students know what’s up. Nor can I accept that adequate background knowledge be gleaned from science, politics, and daily news alone.

  • Marcy Webb says:

    Unless Mr. Willingham believes students are empty vessels, then his proposal will work. However, I believe that teachers, for the most part, don’t uphold this belief, and culture does in fact inform cogntive science.

    Apparently, Mr. Willingham has not read Vygotsky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *