Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Platitudes and Orthodoxy in Web 2.0

I was re-reading the December 2006 Time Magazine article "How to Bring Our School Out of the 20th Century," by Cladia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe. It's a very good overview of the "new literacies," but it has one quote that worries me:
“Learn the names of all the rivers in South America. That was the assignment given To Deborah Stipek’s daughter, Meredith, in school, and her mom, who’s dean of the Stanford University School of Education, was not impressed. “That’s silly,” Stipek told her daughter. “Tell your teacher that if you need to know anything besides the Amazon, you can look it up on Google.”
     The authors present this incident in defense of the mother. Their point, of course, is that our propensity for memorizing lists of facts has less value than deeper learning, and that there are too many facts today to memorize, so we need the skills to find them. While these are both true, I am not at peace with the example given, especially not with the trivialization of the assignment by a parent. How much trouble would it have been to memorize a group of South American Rivers.? Does Dean Stipek really believe that the Parana is not important enough to remember? The Rio Negro? Even the Orinoco? If my daughter, Grace, had come home with such an assignment and requested assistance, I would probably have put on some Bolivian Fair Trade hot chocolate, and made every effort to share with her (before it is too late) the wonders of the South American land mass. Does she know that the watersheds contain four hundred pound snakes that still occasionally eat people? That these rivers never have winter or summer, just high and low water? That scientists go to the fish markets to discover unnamed fish and still do? That the water is as clean, biologically, as Moosehead lake, and is still fresh a hundred miles out to sea? Is Iguasu Falls not important? The Pantanal or the Hyacynth Macaw? Has she never read the story of Jimmie Angel, and his landing atop Auyan-tepui at Angel Falls? Of course, I would also (as a dad) have taken pride in how many of the rivers she could name when we had finished. We would have used GoogleEarth, Wikipedia, personal travelogues, and other tools. It would have been a very technologically savvy evening, but it would have honored the teacher, and the assignment, (and been a good introduction to the "21st Century themes" of indigenous peoples, deforestation, etc.)  The names of those rivers are in my head, and also in my heart, and that is very, very different from them being handy in Google.  I say this because as proponents of the shift toward 21st Century skills, we need to think before we repeat these platitudes. "Knowledge doubles every millisecond! We can look everything up... so we no longer need to know anything!" I know we don't say that exactly, but that's the way it can sound to regular people. 
    Our kids fail to learn for many reasons, but the assumption that facts are to blame (that memorization of facts in schools exists at the cost of in-depth learning) is an oversimplification. What we all need most in the “information storm” are concentration skills… strategies for keeping an idea in our heads long enough to make meaning out of what we are finding, and finishing what we started to do. Memorization goes along with that, and is thus a skill for any century, including the 21st. (Next time, the teacher should send home a nice paper-and-pencil crossword puzzle (generated by a web applet, of course) to help children memorize the rivers so as not to anger the professor mom. :)
Misconception alert! Please don't accuse me of saying that all people should memorize some huge list like Hirsch's, or that rote memorization is the best way to learn anything, or that we don't need to transform the learning environment. We shouldn't, it isn't, and we do.   In the scenario above, it would be a better lesson to have a study of the malaria problem in the Western Amazon, one that involved role setting, real projects, and live interactions with people living in the river basin.  We all know this.
My point:
If the curriculum in a certain year demands the recall of some geographic features from memory, it's not an opportunity for high-hatting the teacher. When proposing technology-based reforms, it isn't always necessary to define "bad" practice, and it is always risky to repeat slogans.  "No sage on the stage, just a guide on the side" "Feed the rabbits, starve the snails" "They don't have to know information, just know how to find it"  All of these are oversimplifications, and can appear suspicious to traditional people (many of whom provide our funding.)
By the way, here are the rivers in Wikipedia. Click a few of those and tell me they are unworthy as items of recall.
Also, as this is a Maine-based forum, I should include a reference to the Maine Counties memorization tool:
Sixteen County Song (To the tune of Yankee Doodle)

Sixteen counties in our state are [Yankee Doodle came to town a']

Cumberland and Franklin,      [Riding on a pony]

Piscataquis and Kennebec,     [Stuck a feather in his cap and]

Oxford, Androscoggin,        [Called it macaroni!]

Sagadahoc, and Somerset, [Yankee Doodle keep it up]

Lincoln, Knox, and Hancock,     [Yankee Doodle dandy]

Waldo, Washington, and York, [Mind the music and the step]
Aroostook, and Penobscot!     [And with the girls be handy]


Anonymous said...

But Joe, I was looking forward to finding the audio link to hear you sing it.!

You raise some interesting ideas here about why the accumalation of facts is a good thing. Being able to tie them to a technology infused spring board where the facts are tied to other, larger concepts certainly will help with retention. I am always concerned about the memorize for the test then forget it mentality that exists with many students. Having a certain amout of knowledge at your finger tips that you know well enough to have a discussion about is necessary I believe. But also knowing where and how to find facts and ideas efficiently is also necessary.

It is our job now to determine what gets taught as we begin the pocess of implementing the Revised Maine Learning Results.

Joe Makley said...

People continue to go overboard in criticizing the memorization of facts. For instance, John Moravec's posting in Education Futures. I'm not saying these guys are wrong, just that balance is needed. For instance, research supports the memorization of Latin cognates, as a way to unlock complex new English vocabulary. (It works on the SAT, at least.)