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?

“Put technology where it can be best used… In the classroom!”

[cross ranted as a comment at Stephen Ransom’s EdTechTrek] [and slightly elaborated]

I am starting to think that because many teachers and administrators
still do not know exactly what we can do with technology there is a
reluctance to put it in the classroom.

Example – today the Internet had, for some reason, stopped working
in the west wing of our school. I was at the computer lab with one
other teacher. She packed her kids up and went back because she only
books the computer lab for the last period of the day so that her kids
can ‘play on the internet’.

For her, technology has nothing to do with learning, it is a form of
entertainment. I stayed with my kids and used the time to work on our
Science vocabulary while teaching them how to hyperlink in
presentations. They were linking their vocabulary words to comments and images made by their peers, creating a collaborative learning network around the new terminology they are learning in Science. (Not bad for a wing it activity, eh ;)

For some reason, this teacher has not caught on yet that technology
can be much more than a way to waste time. I can understand the frustration of the new teachers that Stephen mentions in his post, but
until the more experienced teachers and administrators at schools begin
to use technology as a learning tool, really use it, and demand that
good forms of it be available in the schools, it isn’t going to happen.

I can also understand the frustration of the more experienced teachers who are
expected to use technology but who aren’t really given the time to grow
less afraid of it and to experiment with what can be done. There is a huge divide between our students who live and breathe with technology as part of their daily lives and the teachers who don’t. Huge. and while
there are still administrators who don’t use technology in their daily lives and who don’t champion for its appropriate use and availability in the school, let alone the classroom…well…that divide can only be expected to widen.

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