“Is our children Learning?”

December 1, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

This is not a comment on the verbal acuity of our esteemed leader. Rather a reference to a subject that has been bandied about in education circles for over a decade, yet doesn’t seem to be changing. The difference between mental regurgitation and learning.

Techno idiots, huh? Then we have our work cut out for us is a recent entry at ZDNet about teaching methods based on 1950’s standards being applied to Google-era kids. The problem is that anything students can be made to memorize is always a few keystrokes away, yet the education system is geared toward memorizing and old methods of looking things up. What graduates are often missing is the ability to parse information, to get reasonable sense from a pile of data.
This ties in neatly with the recent postings (one sample) about conspiracy theories. Schools are churning out experts in copying and pasting, but thinking skills are left behind.This issue is not new. As the son of a college physics teacher, I remember my father fuming about the quality of thinking skills coming from high schools back in the 1970’s. The problem wasn’t noted with those who chose physics, but rather with the required courses for non-science majors. This is among a population of incoming freshmen who generally scored 95th percentile or better on their boards.
Ever since schools had to redirect teachers from general teaching to teaching for passing standard tests, actual learning has suffered. Sure, the graduates are experts at scamming multiple choice quizzes, but can they think on their feet?

Now with the internet maturing, it takes significantly less effort to generate a term paper from a guaranteed-A seed paper using tools designed to confuse plagiarism detectors, than to actually learn a topic. There is also a powerful bureaucracy holding education standards steady. It will take at least a generation before the established purpose of education steers from preparing students to work in factories to preparing them to thrive in the information age.

Meanwhile, it’s up to parents to teach their children how to look at information (like T.V. commercials) and gain insight (it’s a cheap piece of plastic that has about 1 hour of play in it). Teach them to look at a live lion at the zoo, and consider how its life is different than its wild kin, or lion cartoon characters. Teach them to look at the sky and make up their own constellations, while explaining that complex patterns just happen.

Learning mnemonics is still good: “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” is one of my favorites (from the original “Lost in Space”). But memorizing only goes so far. For a good Columbus essay, ask them to write about the good ship Niña and its crew. This will make them actually search, and think.

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About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. Dan says:

    I am a recent high school graduate and what you've written here jives with my experience as part of "the system". I recall from my social studies class in particular, my teacher often expressed exasperation that she was unable to go into a topic with more depth, because we needed to move on to cover everything on the finals. I also remember how many of my classmates would take information at face value, and I wondered when their sense of critical thinking fell off. My parents have always emphasized looking at "both sides of the issue" and examining something more deeply than its superficial appearance, so the inability to, as you've stated, "parse information" is something alien to me. I make a good devil's advocate for it.

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