Remembering stuff

Someone once said that the educational debate in the UK is lightyears ahead of the debate internationally. It is a shame really because you would hope that the minds engaging with educational debate from every country would add to making the debate more urgent.

The modern education system is sometimes characterised as being one where kids are mindlessly forced to rote learn and that we have to fight against this industrial factory like education. It’s anecdotal I know but I have worked in five schools and visited a few more and never seen anything like this. Where are all these schools that are battery farming their kids? Most schools are definitely more progressive in their outlook than traditional, in this sense. Although I would contend that good schools and teachers in them know when to adopt different techniques as necessary.

If you engage in debates about the aims and methods of education it is common to read thinking like this, a popular view exposed by many educators, and widely influenced by romanticism:

“The point I am making is that DI is very successful in a certain thing that we are measuring. Remembering stuff. For an education system that measures how well you can remember stuff sat at a table for two hours (of which the DP is really no different from any other offering) then I’m sure DI is highly effective…. but really why do we care? We all pretty much know that that such a metric is a) a terrible way for Unis and businesses to know that they have recruited an effective colleague b) it just isn’t they way to make it in the world past examinations. Once our smartphones can answer any knowledge based examinations (not far off from now) then DI will just about be a waste of everybody’s time. What I’m interested in is what type of instruction leads to creative, communicative, empathetic, collaborative, entrepreneurs and explorers? If DI does that then I’m interested. But first we have to develop a way of measuring these things to see if a certain practice achieves it. Any other research is basically past its sell-by-date, as I suspect are exam based remembering courses.”

Remembering stuff. It’s the practical equivalent of the old, male and stale ad-hominem stereotype trotted out in arguments in post-modernist education discussions at times. It’s uncool. It’s useless and why would anyone who cared about kids and their futures insist on paying attention to it in their classroom or school? It’s outdated. We don’t need to remember because we have google now. We don’t need knowledge because AI will take over our jobs and if we make sure kids know and remember stuff then they are doomed to be job-less, on future the scrap heap, in a world where 65% of the jobs haven’t yet been invented yet.

Why do we care about remembering stuff? 

First, let us not conflate remembering and knowing. They are not the same thing. Technically, remembering is simply the process of retrieving information from your long term memory that you know. Knowing something is having it stored there in the first place. It is possible to know something and not remember it.

This argument above mentions remembering initially but then refers to knowledge based exams and questioning the value of knowing stuff when our smartphones can do that for us later, effectively conflating the two. Both knowing stuff and being able to remember stuff are important. It’s no good knowing stuff and not being able to remember it and you can’t remember what you don’t know. So, in my view education has to help students do both of these things. Why is knowing stuff and then remembering it important and why should we care?

Well, actually, knowing stuff is still pretty important. Believe it or not. Some educator’s use Bloom’s Taxonomy to assert that remembering stuff is at the bottom of the pile, a low order skill useless on its own. However, despite the fact that this taxonomy is not informed by the cognitive psychology of how people learn and it is often presented uncritically, this interpretation is also not what Bloom intended. He put knowledge at the bottom as it is the foundation on which all else is built.

You can’t do much if you don’t know anything. And in fact the more you know, the more you can do, including learn more. The Matthew Effect is a well documented psychological phenomenon by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The more you know, the easier it becomes to learn more and therefore become a life-long learner. That is one reason why we should care, especially if we want to make life-long learners.

These days it is fashionable for international educators to discount knowing  stuff because the international consensus is that 21st century skills are more important than knowledge per se. These 21st century skills are generally recognised to be the four C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The line of reasoning is, generally, that we need to teach these skills instead of knowledge.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. Firstly these skills are not actually 21st Century in and of themselves, and there is no reason to think that they are more important this century than they were in the time of Julius Cesar. Indeed, calls for skills based curriculums go back at least a century already.

Secondly, we can’t have people skilled in these areas who aren’t also knowledgable. Most psychological research to date suggests that creativity requires knowledge and it is only possible to think critically about what you already know about. If you really think about it – to be a great communicator you actually need to know about what you are communicating about. Could you imagine the BBC Earth documentaries not only without a knowledgable David Attenborough but the teams of knowledgeable researchers who write the scripts?

Thirdly, the idea of teaching generic skills is also flawed. The generic skills method of teaching postulates that authentic tasks are ones that mimic real life i.e. science teaching that gets kids to act like scientists. Authors like Daniel Willingham and Daisy Christodoulou point out that the most effective way of teaching skills is through the deliberate practice method. Just as a football team doesn’t practice by playing games, but by breaking the skills needed to win (dribbling, passing) down to their component tasks and practicing those.

In short knowing stuff (and remembering it) is the foundation of the skills we want to instil in our kids, it is also the foundation of understanding and the foundation of life-long learning.

We all pretty much know that that such a metric is a) a terrible way for Unis and businesses to know that they have recruited an effective colleague b) it just isn’t they way to make it in the world past examinations.

Do we? How exactly do we know this? It seems hard to make that claim as it is pretty much unmeasurable. Even if you could survey every employer and university there are too many conflating variables. We are all products of this system. This claim is made without any proof and the burden of proof lies with the one making the claim.

Once our smartphones can answer any knowledge based examinations (not far off from now) then DI will just about be a waste of everybody’s time.

Oh no. Seriously? We still honestly think this? It is right up there with the “we can google it” claim that knowledge isn’t worth having. In addition to what I have written above I should highlight here the distinction between working and long term memory.

Working memory is what you can hold in your awareness and it is limited. The environment and long term memory are accessible from working memory and long term memory is unlimited in its store.

If we rely on google and not our long term memory we will find it very hard to make sense of the world around us as our working memories will constantly be overwhelmed. We wont be able to chunk information.

Knowledge isn’t just what we think about it is what we think with. If you rely on google on your smartphone you won’t be able to think well, you certainly won’t be able to think creatively nor critically nor communicate well.

Also, google is blocked in China. Do we really want to give governments that much power over knowledge and what we know and can know?

What I’m interested in is what type of instruction leads to creative, communicative, empathetic, collaborative, entrepreneurs and explorers? If DI does that then I’m interested. But first we have to develop a way of measuring these things to see if a certain practice achieves it.

Yes, it can do. DI has been shown to effectively increase what people know and remember. If knowing and remembering is the foundation of being able to think well, collaborate well,  and create well then we shouldn’t just throw these out.

One of the problems with international education in my view is that it over emphasises inquiry learning, making ideologues get hot under the collar when DI and other guided instruction is mentioned. We are trained to think schools are battery farming kids, when to be honest, they really aren’t.  I think we need to try to find out what works in what context and focus on that. I think that there is a place for guided instruction.

Anyway, DI does not always equate with rote learning. Why make it out to be?

I am also now reminded me of this article and this tweet. They are based on similar assumptions and outlooks, and I had wanted to write something in response to these claims.

I agree with Noah Harari when he writes that we often conflate intelligence and consciousness.  I am not convinced that AI can actually know anything. I think it is intelligent and can process a lot of information quickly, but I would contend that to know anything and remember anything you need to be conscious.

If this is true what is the real risk presented by AI? Probably automation of tasks that rely on data processing in some form. Doctoring for example, requires the ability to process symptoms and match them to known illnesses. But not every job is at risk of automation because not every job relies purely on data processing. As Harari contends in his books, the highly prized human jobs of the future will be the ones that rely on human ability to relate to other humans. Therefore Doctors are at much more risk of being automated than Nurses. However, Nurses still need to know an awful lot of stuff as well as be at good at relating to other people to be able to do their jobs.

Humans need knowledge to be able to think well and to specialise in areas. If we don’t ensure that people know things they definitely will not be better placed to work with or instead of AI. The people that are replaced by AI will be the ones who don’t know much.

Additionally, the fact is knowledge rich curriculums demonstrably reduce inequality and with the way social divides are opening up in our modern society perhaps the way for international education to contribute to a peaceful world is to close those gaps? Seeing as DI has been demonstrably shown to reduce social inequality (See Why Knowledge matters by E.D. Hirsch) and as international curriculum’s like the IB is placed in many public schools in poorer areas, I find it’s focus on inquiry teaching quite worrying.

I wonder if international educators can afford to ignore this stuff because generally our kids come from educated and affluent homes?

One thought on “Remembering stuff”

  1. An interesting read. Your point about Bloom’s is an important one, and often misconstrued. The AI sections might be avoiding the adaptive learning that is rapidly approaching mainstream society – i.e. driverless cars are exposed to thousands of scenarios and “learn” what it means to be driving in a road. It’s hard to describe to a machine what tarmac is, but they can be exposed to examples and non-examples to learn for themselves. Hence, I think it goes further than data processing (but I really don’t know anything about it over what I’ve just said). Regarding inquiry, ss always it comes down to definitions and dichotomies. If you are referring to open inquiry, then that differs hugely to structured inquiry. There are many forms of teacher-led inquiry of course, and to the untrained eye that the extreme of that might look like direct instruction, and only an expert would note those nuances. If we only had agreed upon definitions and we weren’t so bad as a species at forcing everything into discrete packets (Hans Rosling called this the gap instinct) then we might make more positive progress. Anyhow, enjoyed reading this.

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