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:

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?