Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What I Don't Know, Surely, Google Will Tell Me...

There once was a teacher who taught down the hall from me. She was an ordinary teacher. Had several years of experience, rarely had much trouble with kids and by all accounts, was, just, well ordinary. Nothing really stood out about her. Except for one thing. See, she taught social studies and she had for almost 30 years. So, theoretically she had seen a lot of history that her students would ultimately discuss. But that was far from the case. You see, history in her room, stood still. But really how does that happen? Textbook adoptions came and went. She would get new textbooks and just stack them in her room and use the old and tattered books she had for years. Administrators felt powerless. This teacher was the district head of one of the most powerful teacher organizations in the state and could make the life of anyone who crossed her a nightmare. So she was allowed to do what she did. Her and her class were often brushed aside as social studies is not tested so it really didn't matter.

But why did this teacher teach the way she did? She had painstakingly created lesson plans in about her 4th year of teaching. There was a piece of paper for everyday and a test for every week. All of these correlated to a specific textbook. When her textbook changed, the thought of having done all that work for nothing frightened her. So instead of adapting in a curriculum that requires almost daily adaptations, she retreated to her room and kept her slowly yellowing lesson plans and kept her kids in the dark about current events...

So what is the point of that story? This teacher could have easily adapted with the times. And with the advent of the personal computer and Internet, especially in the classroom, it would not have been hard for her to simply add to or take away from her lesson plans.

Last night on #edchat the topic was The Internet and Prior Knowledge, mainly, what do kids need to know and what can they just look up? It all boils down to what we are truly teaching in our classrooms.

Here is some of what was said:
  • The internet has made my teaching more interactive and more "in the moment." There are many things that I feel my students do not need to memorize, but need to know how and where to find the information. However, there are still core bits of information that I feel are essential for my students to memorize (addition and times tables, the names of the provinces (Canada) and their capitals, spelling rules, etc). -A Teacher
  • Instead of me spouting off facts, figures, data, whatever - the kids go out and gather it, analyze it, synthesize it and summarize it. I am simply the guide who creates the initial path and gets them on it. Hopefully, somewhere along the way a spark is ignited that makes them lifelong learners. -A Teacher
  • Yes, the internet has changed how teaching happens. Students need to learn basic knowledge, then from there be able to find out the rest of their answers using critical thinking and sometimes the internet. They need to know how to think, analyze, create, and learn. -A Teacher
  • No longer are we just teaching content. The Internet has made content ubiquitous, and it is now our job as educators to teach students how to filter and evaluate content. -A Teacher
You can read the archive here and some of the summarizing statements here.

Here are some of my thoughts...

Are there things kids have to memorize? I am just not so sure. Yes, there are some things that we as adults (and kids) should know so we don't look, well, stupid. (State Capitols, Constitution Amendments, how to calculate sales tax or a discount or price per unit.) But are these and, really anything, that we have to sit our kids down and have them memorize? I can remember getting drilled by my wonderful mother in my multiplication tables. Every night we would go over and over and over them. And then on Fridays in my class we would take timed tests and our progress was charted for the whole class to see. Oh Johnny did his 5's in 45secs. Steven, you need to work harder. It took you 80 seconds. Please, what did that teach the kids in my class?That the facts were meaningful and important or that faster is better?

The point is there really isn't anything anyone needs to memorize. Yes, we need to learn our State Capitols, and multiplication tables and Constitutional Amendments but memorize them?Perhaps memorize is the wrong word...perhaps we should ask kids to learn in context. Make meaning out of what we are learning and teaching.

Face it. The Internet has changed the way we educate and the way we teach. You know and I know it. Teachers like the one down the hall from me, can not survive much longer, using the same lesson plans year after year. Kids have access to so much information. Teachers have so access to so much information. And while we have access to so much information we have to still remember to make it meaningful and provide context.

If you are "memorizing multiplication tables or state capitols just because "they need to know," you are wasting their time. They don't need to "just know." What they do need is context and connections and relationships to what they are learning. With the entire Internet available in the pockets of our kids "just knowing" something isn't necessary.

Oh, I don't know what the 16th Amendment is, let me Google it. Instead, provide meaning. Why was the 16th Amendment important? What events lead up to its adoption? How did it change history? Those are more important.

So memorization is out. Creating meaning, providing context and connections, thats what's in. All the cool educators are doing it. Are you?


  1. Ahhh....the wonderful timed tests. I had never taken one in my life before I started attending public school. It was crushing. I was still on subtraction, it seemed, while everyone else was on division. Granted, I am very glad that I learned them because it has saved me a lot of thinking and calculating, but I didn't see the purpose in 4th grade for taking a timed test every Friday.

    In my current school, my students can barely do mental subtraction, and times tables are a pipe dream. For this reason, they can't do simple division and struggle with multi-step problems. They make simple errors as they try to multiply 6X9 by making little tally marks on the paper.

    In short, if we teach students how memorizing basic math facts and relationships between numbers will make all aspects of math easier and how these facts relate to one another, we will (hopefully) put context into this need for memorization.

    P.S. I wonder if that teacher is still there doing exactly the same lessons every year.....

  2. I would argue that you would first need to know what the 16th Amendment was in order to know its context. You don't need to memorize the 16th Amendment word for word, however; that is what Google is for.

    I do like the idea that content in the classroom must be as current as possible. For social studies, I can not fathom using a textbook resource older than 10 years old.

  3. How many readers needed to Google the 16th ammendment to know what the heck it was? And for those who didn't, does it make any difference that you didn't? Why is this ammendment a part of the constitution? What are the potential problems? What considerations could/should have been included to prevent abuses of this power? These are the kinds of questions that are important. These are the kinds of questions that create citizens who can make a modern democracy work for everyone, not just the rich. No wonder there is a right-wing agenda aimed at ensuring the continuation of content based exams.

  4. Wonderful synthesis of the discussion. The type of teacher you talk about here has always existed. I think the big difference in the Internet age is that she only looks more anachronistic and her children will have a much easier time of tuning her out in favour of their ipods and cell phones. The sad thing is that the students are losing an opportunity to learn about the real value of learning. It is so sad when we see this kind of classroom with the stench of spoiled opportunity.

    I think your ideas about where the paths teachers need to take in this age of information are bang on. "..meaning, context and connections..." ; this is absolutely the kind of learning environment that needs to be provided.

  5. I went to a workshop this week on concept based learning. The phrase that resonated with me was this: 'Facts are locked in time, place or situation. Concepts are transferable'. We need to teach kids to think, understand, analyse and apply the big conceptual ideas. Facts they can find on the internet. :)

  6. It's amazing to me that a teacher can do the same thing over and over again and not die of boredom. For me after the second time around I'm definitely ready to move on to something new.
    The most important skills we can teach our students are how to find and validate information, then how to synthesize what they have found in order to create something new which can be shared with others. Any teacher who is not prepared to also be a learner and to find out how to do these things if they don't already know, really has no business in this wonderful profession.

  7. I truly believe my students learn more effectively when they discover how to find information that applies to real life situations that need solutions.

    My students right now are working on stop motion video and short story telling. I purposefully have not given a whole lot of direction to them other than the prior knowledge they have attained through out the year in video production, what the goals are for the project and some stop motion samples. Watching the discovery process and listening to the discussions on how to make the project work has been unbelievable.

    I believe in giving them a brief history/background on a topic and through higher order questions getting them to find the answers or solutions. Not every student uses the same path to find their answer, but usually they get there. If my questions can be answered with simple search - they are not the right questions that lead the student to make new discoveries.

    The real goal is to get the students to filter the content on the internet, but to do that they have to know what they are working with (prior knowledge), and be able to apply the concepts and knowledge to their world.

    The Edchat conversation on Tuesday was great!

  8. I am an unabashed information junkie. I agree it is more important to teach students how and where to find the information they need and then to critically assess why it fits and how to use it. However, until our schools are assessed and awarded funding to keep the doors open by something other than testing practices that bar fluid access to information resources, we are compelled to require them to "know" the content on which they are being tested.

  9. Steven,
    While I agree with your basic premies, I think that there is a lot of prior knowledge that we learned through memorization that we take for granted. There are things that need to be memorized and practiced so that we can use those building blocks for higher level thinking and learning. I don't know a child who isn't asked to memorize their abc's and to memorize and practice counting. Memorization is a building block and stepping stone for other knowledge. I think that the mistake comes in asking students to stay in the memorization phase and make that the focus of learning. We of course don't want our students to memorize something and keep it in isolation. We want them to use it to make connections with new learning, to create something new. Memorization has been villainized because it is so often over used and has become the focus of so many classrooms. There are some things that students need to have instant recall for so that they can move on to the next phase of learning. We need to allow students to discover learning, give them time to practice it (and yes in some cases memorize) and then let them create connections to other learning, create something new.

  10. The teacher you use as an example of retrograde practice is a rare bird and functions as a straw man in your argument (quick, google straw man argument). Its easy to dismiss the old ways of doing things when swept up in the enthusiasm of a new idea. However, a lot of the new ideas that are attributed to the proliferation of digital technology are hardly new. The value of context, connectivity, and relationships in learning are as old as the profession of teaching itself, and good teachers have always included these values in their practice.

    Memorization has several benefits for the student that are unmentioned in the article. First and foremost is the development and maintenance of the capacity to remember things with confidence. Memory is a use-it-or-lose-it capability. It is essential for those who want to be able think on their feet and it works by making connections in the brain. By relying on Google we externalize this process which makes us dependent upon machines. This depedency erodes our self-confidence and creates intellectual insecurity.

    Memorization is an important part of mastery. Students desperately want to feel like they are masters of some area of knowledge and much of contemporary pedagogy undervalues this. A sense of mastery requires a lot of imitation and repetition. The development of mastery is essential to the process of growing up and feeling empowered.

    Memorization is fundamentally useful. In spite of the claims that we are in a digital revolution, we still think and communicate using phonemes and an alphabet that is thousands of years old. The alphabet was far more revolutionary than the internet will ever be, largely because the internet is little more than the alphabet's new playground. Since the middle ages we've been using alphabet to organize all other knowledge. Mastery of the alphabet starts with memorizing it and most of us got it down by singing it over and over again to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I bet you can still remember it now, and it is pleasantly reassuring to do so.

  11. This is a fascinating discussion and I think that the question of specifically assessing (and by association teaching) recall is perhaps the biggest challenge facing education. I think that the point is not that memorisation is meaningless specifically: but that meaning is central. The internet doesn't invalidate memorisation - I'd suggest that the "now, now, now" mindset of the internet generation means that the instantaneous nature of being able to remember a fact off the top of your head is still completely valid.

    Instead: memorisation only has value when the student finds meaning in it. Times tables are worth memorising because it is frustrating not to have the information straight away. In @Jeff's example: the alphabet is worth memorising because we can find the meaning in knowing our alphabet.

    I've got a few more thoughts about this on my blog: