View #1: further thoughts

View #1 of knowledge/learning is that it’s made up of a set of discrete facts that it’s the student’s duty to learn and the teacher’s duty to teach.

One of the problems, as stated in this morning’s post, is that this kind of teaching/learning relies heavily on taxon memory. There’s nothing wrong with taxon learning at all. It’s durable, reliable, and long-lasting, once you get it into your brain.

That’s the problem, though, because it’s very, very hard to get that kind of information into the brain. Our brain perceives bits of taxon information as irrelevant to its purposes, and resists the memorization. As my son so famously said about the multiplication tables, “When will I ever use that?” So learning in that manner requires a great deal of concentration and repetition to engrave that information into the synapses.

The benefits are that if you truly learn something this way, it’s yours forever. The multiplication tables is a great example of this. State capitals, the Presidents in order, and the Pledge of Allegiance are others.

The downside is that not only does the brain resist learning this way, it requires external motivation to do so. And external motivation eventually depresses the brain’s intrinsic desire to learn. I think most of us can give plenty of examples of how, starting in third grade and certainly by fifth grade, the natural curiosity of the first grader is almost completely gone, as far as our curriculum is concerned.

So why have we relied so much on this kind of learning in the past? Hint: it’s easy to test. And because it’s easy to test, it produces numbers that look oh-so-objective, and where would our policy makers be without objective accountability? But the long-term outlook for people who are required to learn mainly through the use of taxon memory is that they don’t end up with brains that look on the world as a set of ever-changing patterns that need to be recognized and dealt with.

Quick: how many kingdoms of living things are there? Can you name them? Are you sure they haven’t changed since last week?

See the problem with an overreliance on View #1? You can’t regard knowledge as a set of discrete facts that are set in stone, eternal truths if you will, because facts change and then you’re stuck with the wrong information in your head.

Two views of knowledge

Here’s another idea to get out there right here at the beginning: there are two basic views of what knowledge/learning is all about.

The first is that knowledge/learning is a set of true things (facts, you might be tempted to call them) that are true things everyone needs to know. It is the teacher’s job to get those true things into the head of the child so that the child can be an educated person. Because without knowing those true things, one can never be a functioning member of a great democracy.

The second view is that knowledge/learning is a process. The learner constructs knowledge, as someone (I think it was me) once said, and that construction goes on all the time. It is the teacher’s job to manage that construction so that the child is learning things we have chosen to write into the curriculum, rather than those things the better-funded and more focused corporate world has chosen.

The two views are complementary, of course, but where we sometimes find conflict is when those who believe in View #1 think that View #2 is just fuzzy, feel-good liberal hogwash. Yes, it’s true, the proponents of View #1 tend to be conservatives, with a focused worldview of the way things are ‘sposed to be: back in their day, student sat in rows, quietly, didn’t give no backtalk, and they by God learned 100 facts about the Civil War every day. Plus ciphering.

The problem is that View #1 tends to produce very low level learning, simple recall of extraneous facts that don’t stick. Everyone knows how to cram for a test so that the information sticks just long enough to be regurgitated back onto the test. It’s a very hard way to learn, and it’s not very effective. It’s called taxon memory, and it works by repetition. Simply scratch hard enough and long enough, and you can engrave the 100 facts about the Civil War onto the hard surface of the brain.

Here’s an image I’d like for us to disseminate: whenever someone uses the well-worn phrase regurgitating facts, let’s respond with just like a cat hacking up a hairball.

Disclaimer: There’s nothing wrong with learning facts, taxon memory is essential to our learning processes, and not all people who vote for John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld share their limited view of how an educated person gets that way.

Enough for today. More thoughts on View #1 this afternoon.