This week I had a tough assignment. I had to debate the question, ‘should schools teach things that can be googled?’ I was arguing the agree side of this debate and I found it challenging to say the least. I enjoyed researching the science behind how people learn and the importance of meta-cognition in the ways we organize information in our brains and make sense of it. In essence this debate question came down to whether students should be taught the basic facts that have been standardized across our society or whether we should be encouraging more critical thinking and skill development. On a much deeper level this becomes a question about curriculum and who decides what knowledge is required for use in society. For example, is it necessary for everyone in our society to memorize the periodic table of elements? For those of us who did memorize it in high school, is the recall of that information possible or necessary at this point? Furthermore, the periodic table is easily searchable online and readily available. I am far from saying that the information in the table is irrelevant, however I am suggesting that the memorization of these types of facts may not be necessary or beneficial for life after school.
Is this to say that we shouldn’t teach anything that we can find online? On the contrary, their are some sets of knowledge that are necessary at a base level in order to continue the scaffolding of knowledge. Amy Signh brought up a good point concerning reading and the alphabet. Can we find the alphabet on Google? Of course we can, so why do we teach young children to memorize a song that helps them remember the letters? We do this because this base knowledge is necessary for the development of the SKILL of reading. Students need to be able to recognize the letters of the alphabet in order to practice and develop their reading skills. This is a key element because if we intend to prepare students for life after school, we must take the next step and help students move beyond base level memorization of facts to the synthesis, analysis and constructive phases of learning.
“Students who create, build, invent and lead SOMETHING in high school are those who not only stand out in the college application process, but they are also those who are more sure of themselves and more confident about their abilities.”-Alex Ellison
So how should we be preparing students for life after school. Firstly, students should be given opportunities to deepen their understanding of material through practical application. The difference between memorization and understanding is an important distinction that needs to be present in the organization and planning of learning activities. In essence, teachers need to assure that students are being moved from passive learning to active learning. In other words, instead of listening to or reading information from a textbook or computer, students should be given opportunities to participate in hands on learning and then reflect on what happened and why. Research has shown that as knowledge is applied and experienced, it is embedded further in our active memory.
I have been very involved over the past number of years in the Middle Years Practical and Applied Arts. As my fellow teachers and I developed kits that allowed the hands on application of scientific and mathematical principles, I began using these types of Project based learning and Inquiry models in my classroom. I quickly discovered a few very important things. Firstly, there is an improvement in student engagement inherent in any activity that requires practical application. I have definitely witnessed students who normally struggle with traditional styles of teaching and learning soar to new heights when given the opportunity. Students who have difficulty sitting in desks thrive when given a chance to use and develop hands-on skills. Secondly, the light bulb moments come thick and fast while students are building and discovering together through experiences. Here’s an example from our classroom in which the students created a Mbira (Finger Piano) while working with fractions, measurement, sound waves, and world cultures. I could have given my students this information in other ways but I wanted to have them share in a challenging hands-on experience and then reflect through blogging on the process (Meta-Cognition).
It will always be a difficult question to consider. What and how should students be learning in schools? Let’s not forget that the entire traditional classroom design was born out of the Industrial Revolution. Society had to find a way to produce workers for factories that would have a set of basic skills in math and language to be able to continue in the labor force. Education systems sought to have a standardized set of skills and values adopted by all society members and students, just like future labor force workers were to be compliant and obedient to authority. The rise of public education was due in large part to the Industrial Revolution but the school system itself was modeled in large part after the factories of the time. As we now know, we cannot educate students as we move pieces through a factory. This is why it is crucial that teachers focus on giving students engaging and investigative opportunities for experiential and problem based learning. In case I’m boring you with my history ramblings, take a break and enjoy Bloom’s Taxonomy According to Sienfeld.
So can we forget about teaching base knowledge because most of those tidbits of information can be found on Google? The result of this type of teaching approach would most likely result in much confusion and lack of direction. On the other hand, teaching through wrote memorization exclusively does not serve to challenge our students, make them curious, help them solve problems or give them skills necessary for life in the real world. Scaffolding is the key and any good teacher is constantly evaluating, planning and reflecting on their students as they move through the levels of blooms taxonomy. I think we can all remember studying for hours for an exam, only to write it and immediately forget most if not all of the information. If students are simply memorizing answers for a test, deeper understanding is lacking. We need to ask ourselves, are our students being given the skills and understanding they need to thrive after the last school bell rings?