A lot of attention has been paid recently to this post on Black Informant showing a scan of a fifth grade civics exam from 1954. The exam is 100 questions and required students to name, among other things, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the first 22 amendments to the Constitution (!!!), and the definition of the writ of habeas corpus. Most of the reaction has been along the lines of "Oh, look how far we've fallen." If you browse the comments after the link, though, you will also find a good amount of the polar opposite – it's just memorization, it demonstrates no real learning, and today's educational standards are actually far higher. My personal favorite in the latter category has to be:

The comparison of education from the year 1954 to now is completely irrelevant. With the integrated use of smart phones and the internet, it is completely unnecessary to memorize all of these facts that reduce the amount of teaching effort put towards CRITICAL THINKING. Facts are easy things to look up; the connection between these facts and being able to understand the reason things exist the way they do because of the influence of various related factors is what education should be moving toward…and memorizing facts is not something that is necessary anymore for anyone who can look up those facts in 2 seconds on their iphone. It is simply a waste of time.

Our integrated use of smart phones and the world wide hyperweb aside, I do consider this a legitimate question. Should our educational system emphasize information retention or "critical thinking?" Here's the problem. We do neither. Exams like this are no longer given, at least not commonly, but has it been replaced with anything more useful? In my limited experience we are producing wave after wave of students who reach adulthood utterly unable to distinguish between their puckered assholes and a hole in the ground but with access to information they lack the desire or ability to use. They're loaded to the gunwales with iPhones, laptops, and 24-7 access to all of humanity's collected knowledge, and they can't do basic research on Google to save their souls. I just said all of this two weeks ago so I'll stop repeating myself.

There is value in knowing basic facts. Should we be encouraging kids to memorize the 435 members of Congress or pi to 100 places? No, that would be a pure waste of time. But I shit you not – and I wish I could have a student verify this – I just quizzed my Presidency class, all junior and senior political science majors at a college with an average incoming SAT score of 1400, on the Bill of Rights and not one of them named more than half. Not one. Most could only stammer out a partial description of the 1st Amendment, maybe something about the 2nd. This is bad. "Memorization" for the sake of memorization probably would not help our educational system, but can we start sending people to selective universities with a grasp of some incredibly basic goddamn facts? I do not ask a lot. Call it rote memorization if you'd like, but I'm comfortable making a judgment call here: people should know the Bill of Rights.

This is my argument about the educational system in this country as a whole. We have spent 40 years trying to build pretty houses without building a foundation first. If people are not graduating from high school with a grasp of basic math, the ability to intelligibly express a thought in English, and perhaps a rudimentary understanding of American government, nothing else matters. It is all irrelevant if they lack that basic foundation, and trust me, most of the kids I deal with lack the everliving hell out of it. Maybe the student from 1954 was just learning a bunch of facts and never developed the ability to utilize them or put them in context. Is it markedly better to have students who (allegedly) have the latter skills but not the facts? Why is information without skills patently silly but skills without information isn't?

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  • matthew p------ says:

    Completely agreed, mostly, to some extent. I often lament over the lamentations of others over the declining standards of language among the younger generations (of which I would imagine I am barely part of). To describe it through an anecdote, I once found myself at a fancy dinner sitting next to and talking with a former diplomat about the "younger generation's" use of English. The way he described it, I imagine he conceived of some Platonic(ish?) perfect English, of which actual spoken language is some derivation. I'll cut this short and get to my point, which is that in my mind he believed in the same conservative approach to education as the teaching of specific absolutes which can be empirically measured and observed, and he clung to an idealistic view of "the good old days" as necessarily better. Also, he was racist and most of his bile was directed towards African American Vernacular English

  • Why is information without skills patently silly but skills without information isn’t?

    Because people forget that skills can't be perfected without practising them. If you forget or ignore that, then it's easy to think that education can consist of preparing someone to learn without ever having them actually learn anything.

    In the quest to create students who are perfectly prepared to learn anything properly, we've created students who are incapable of learning at all.

  • How can you say you're a free man if you don't know what you're free to do?

    Maybe the liberty most of us have ever really cared about is the freedom to shop. The sort of freedom they also have in Saudi Arabia. America is freer in that you can also shop for porn.

  • Why isn't a basic understanding of web usage taught? Is it? Understanding how to utilize this limitless expanse of knowledge could be handy, I think. How to search using LexisNexis, or JSTOR, or even google scholar without getting frustrated or failing to find anything relevant is pretty damn disappointing but more importantly unhelpful.

  • As a high school student, I can verify this. I'm not quite sure it's their fault; teachers expect students to simply memorize the material and move on with their lives. While it's possible for students to move ahead at their own pace, ahead of the standard curriculum, schools usually punish you for doing so. Not 'detention' type of punishment, but regardless of your current knowledge base they force you to sit through lessons and take notes (literally FORCE you to take notes, in senior AP classes :|).

    Even for supposedly low-memorization classes like English, students just remember the teacher's opinion and replicate it, usually with similar wording. The teachers know this is happening, but reason that 'students are learning,' but in reality, students forget it 30 seconds after the test.

    Part of the problem seems to be that teachers are just older students; teachers seem to have the same pitfalls in critical thinking that students are being taught. For example, my calculus teacher learns math by simply practicing the formula over and over again, and expects her students to do the same. The issue is that the second you hide what formulas to use in a word problem or slightly more complex string of calculations, students don't know what to do anymore.

    I suppose I'm not quite the ordinary student.

  • shouldbegradingpapers says:

    Time for the high school English teacher to chime in, people. The list of problems in education is long, but every single issue leads back to American culture and our wacky (no better word exists) values.

    We want our education system to teach, to mold, to model, and to babysit. We want it to produce skilled workers, thoughtful citizens, and problem solvers. We do not want to pay for smaller schools and classrooms; we do not want to make the teaching field competitive by raising salaries and toughening the certification process. We want everyone to have equal opportunities, so we will not separate the students into academic and trade schools through testing, like most, if not all, of the rest of the industrialzed world.

    Teachers blame parents and parents blame teachers and politicians ride this wave of confusion to the polls. The Boortzs and Hannitys and Becks screech and blather about the evils of liberal education, offering vouchers as the Holy Grail of education.

    Until Americans change their inherent views of and understanding of education, nothing will change. Nothing.

    I could go on, but what's the point. I should be grading papers, anyway…

  • I was on a jury this year, and the level of basic social studies and American Government knowledge of those who get on a jury is about what you'd expect from fourth graders in some Communist country: they were willing to put aside things like common sense and their own opinions to just decide things according to a law we all admitted was kind of stupid and completely outside of the facts of the case. Having to explain concepts such as the purpose of juries to my fellow jurors was exasperating, but worth it.

    People don't know their rights, what socialism is, how capitalism works, why certain things are illegal, and how democracy works are doomed to make the stupid complaints we're hearing from most of our populace. People say they'd love candidates like Eisenhower and Stevenson and other good politicians, but I'd prefer a populace that actually knows what's going on in the world.

    It doesn't matter if we can name the top bauxite producers in the world, but we should at least have a clue why such things are important. Where are the lithium deposits? How much oil is out there? What are the implications of our national debt? Will China always look inward? Does Europe have a future? What's going on with Brazil? All these questions are things intelligent people who read a lot can discuss intelligently without resorting to slogans and the repetition of things overheard on talk radio, but it takes an ongoing effort to know current events. A people who just ask for the updates will always be lied to. The worst part is, the liars know that those people being lied to don't mind.

  • If we don't know the Bill of Rights, then soon we'll be forced to Quarter British Soldiers! George the Third is coming for our property and our women and our guns! (In all fairness, I was a Poli Sci major, and I can't tell you what the 9th Amendment is.)

    I do agree that we are churning out some pretty dumb kids who think they are college-educated. Especially when it comes to Math skills. There just does not seem to be a value assessed to "knowledge" and "intellectual curiosity" – just the degree that you can buy from a university. I am amused and terrified of the kid who put on his resume that he had "Critical Thinking Skills" that came from a 3 Hour Critical Thinking Workshop. Or, when I had a Business Management Major ask me what "That Whole Enron Thing" is, since her professor kept referring to it.

  • I don't know though, Ed. I definitely see where you're coming from with students that don't know basic things and have no desire to use the internet they carry with them 24/7 to look them up, and that's certainly something that needs to be addressed. But at the same time… our educational system is focused mostly around practicality, though not always. Our high schools don't teach you higher-level math, but they teach you enough math to get by in daily life. They don't teach you the proper way to go about writing a peer-review-quality scientific report or a bestselling novel, but they teach you how to write sentences and communicate ideas through writing. They don't ingrain in your mind the entirety of the constitution, but they give you a basic sense of how our government works and what it's supposed to operate like. The whole point is that they give you basics, and then it's up to you to use that base and the knowledge-gathering skills you (should) have been taught and expand upon it.

    I couldn't tell you any of the bill of rights beyond the first, second, fourth, and fifth amendments. I can, unlike most of today's students, look it up in a few seconds and have at least a semi-intelligent conversation about it. But even without knowing the exact wording of it, I think it would be fair to argue that I understand the basic point and intent of it — that being that we should be free to do what we please, so long as it doesn't harm anyone else, and the government cannot simply force or intimidate its way to a goal.

    I think it's a matter of looking for specific knowledge from a very general education. Not that the system doesn't need fixing, mind you.

  • I agree, to an extent, BUT facts are remembered, long term, only if used. What we tend to do with students is ask them to remember *for the purpose of taking the exam* and then they, perfectly reasonably, forget the facts. Facts are remembered through use, not through memorization. I had my locker combination from high school memorized but there is no way in the word I could tell you what it was now because it's a completely useless piece of information to me now. The question for education is how do we get students to understand that facts are important for something other than passing the test, how do we integrate the *use* of facts into their day-to-day activities and, in so doing, make the facts relevant to people's lives and, thus, memorable?

  • Years ago I took a class in Criminal Law, with several ADULTS (I'm fairly sure no one under the age of 25), and we had a test which included a question on which part of the Constitution covers the judicial system. This was matching, not fill-in-the-blank, so the correct answer was right there. I was the only one who answered correctly–Article III, of course–with several people saying things like the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, I totally flubbed the parts which covered the Miranda decision (I didn't realize that suspects don't have to be read their rights until the cops actually intend to start questioning them, and any voluntary statements made prior are admissible in court–those cop shows are lying to you, people).

  • Soo my comment got cut off, lame. Basically, my point is @John — we need to hold schooling in the U.S. to a higher standard, not use history-based apology. You can never teach someone to understand the principles of the bill of rights (not just memorize them) without their own intrinsic motivation, and the way to do that is to instill a thirst for knowledge in students, not hold the standard to education enough that they can become spreadsheet monkeys.

  • I dreamt of a time far in the future… where everyone was very good looking…. and carried their brains around in little plastic cases in their pockets.

    But seriously, didn't Socrates (or somebody) complain that writing would ruin our capacity to memorize? Wouldn't a 19th century scholar think us all ignorant buffoons because we can't speak and read Latin and Greek? Don't we all know (I do) people who consider themselves critical thinkers because they know buzzwords like "non sequitur" and "strawman"? Are we jdestined to become Eloi and Morlocks? And if so, does anyone have a good recipe for Eloi?

  • "the way to do that is to instill a thirst for knowledge in students"

    And how does one do that exactly? What does the process of instilling a thirst for knowledge look like? (I'm not trying to pick on Jeffey)

    This is the problem with education in America. Anytime a conversation about the remedies of public education come up that conversation becomes vague, generalized, and tends to rely on undefined remedies. You know how we fix public education? By teaching students the "magic" of critical thinking! You know what students need? A teacher that will "inspire" them to learn more! These remedies stem from the ideas that 1) inside every child beats the heart of an intellectual and 2) its the teachers responsibility to instill a love/thirst/hunger for learning. Teachers are supposed to teach the material, and at some point students/parents have to become part of the process of learning. Any teacher can tell you that you can sell the importance of education to a group of students all day long, and that still cannot make them want to go home and spend more time learning when they've just return home from a 6 hour school day. This is why any shift in education responsibilities is always on the school and the teacher, we basically cede the idea that students are not going to do work outside of the school and that by and large parents won't give a crap unless their child is a discipline problem. How 'bout parents instill in their kid a thirst for knowledge? By placing these undefined remedies on schools and teachers we are basically setting them up to fail. No public school teacher can be an inspiring teacher a knowledgeable teacher, a semi-social worker, and disciplinarian at the same time without burning out, and the students coming up short.

  • Mario Greymist says:

    If anyone interested in this phenomenon in education, please read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. I am a volunteer coach of a HS debate team, and even in an activity which should be supporting critical thinking skills over regurgitation, it doesn't happen. Some coaches tell there kids "If they say X, you say Y…here's a handy verbatim response to read." It's sickening, really.

  • As a just-retired high school teacher, I'll tell you that the REAL problem in education is just beginning and it can be contained in one short phrase: high-stakes standardized testing. The be-all and end-all of EVERY public school in this country is the fact that all are now forced to teach to a test. And all will fail in a few years because, under "NO Child Left Behind," all schools will have to perform at 100% "success" or they will fail. Never has a system been better defined to guarantee failure and, in my opinion, send public money to private educational institutions.

    Don't misunderstand me: the idea of teaching basic knowledge as well as the ability to think and draw conclusions is essential to creating successful future citizens. I taught history and government and MADE SURE students could not only learn information but use it to draw conclusions. I hope I was successful–students back from college told me I was, at least for those who succeeded in college.

    We hear constantly about "digital kids," and how "different" they are than we were, but the fact is, as you say, while they can write Emails (using no capitalization and VERY limited spelling) and text (using even less), they can't do a decent Google search because they lack the basic understanding of the language to form concepts from it. I hope I alleviated that a bit.

    More later –

  • Saying that the existence of google allows us to focus on how we think rather than on what we think is a cop out. I know very few people who know how to use google properly. This search engine ineptitude does not appear to have decreased with the younger generation.

  • I share your frustration. However, i think there is a flawed assumption here. If you take official graduation rates at face value [which you can't], high school completion rates were far lower in the 50's, and the students who went on to university were a far more self-selecting group. There is no reason to assume that the majority of folks left their schooling with even this rote learning being in the tool-bag…

    Also, the fact that your students do generally well on standardized assessments, such as the SAT, but are lacking foundational knowledge and critical thinking skills tells you all you need to know about the kind of education they've received.

  • I agree, to an extent, BUT facts are remembered, long term, only if used. What we tend to do with students is ask them to remember *for the purpose of taking the exam* and then they, perfectly reasonably, forget the facts.

    Exactly that–the facts have to be contextualized to be meaningful. And that means helping them to see how the subject matter is relevant to their lives.

    As someone who teaches mostly freshman composition, the facts I use are different from semester to semester; I'm trying to teach them how to read, write, and (I hope) think critically. But the lack of curiousity can be staggering at times. I try all sorts of things to bring them along and some of the time, they're with me and, at other times, they aren't.

  • Regarding using the internet for research, this was an issue while I was doing my Grad Dip in Librarianship. We actually had to learn how search engines worked and apply the precision/recall formula when constructing queries and assessing the results.

    Later, when working for a private pathology company I often had to justify why they needed a library at all, as "everything is on the internet now"! In 1999!? It was tedious trying to explain that, firstly, this was far from correct, and secondly, even IF it were true it didn't mean that people could find the correct information…the job I was trained to do.

    I used to just note that yes, everybody here has access to the internet therefore we don't need a librarian/information professional…so, does that mean that because we all have Microsoft Excel on our computers we don't need a finance department/accountants? Simplistic, but it worked sometimes.

    My (seventh grade) daughter uses Google a lot but her poor spelling means her queries don't always yield the results she could use. Also, not understanding basic boolean queries or being able to come up with useful synonyms put her at a disadvantage. I also encourage her to use the school library rather than go straight to the computer but it's tough to change an already strong habit.

  • "Why is information without skills patently silly but skills without information isn’t? "

    Because information is quickly old, outdated, and useless. Skills (learning skills, at least) are not. The ability to learn is required for most jobs. It is required for all decent jobs. Knowledge of the the Bill of Rights, American history, etc, is not.

    Is that a good thing, a bad thing, just a thing? Depends on your perspective. To me, just a thing.

  • Oh man, shoutout to the other high school teachers on the thread!

    We just had a very long staff meeting at our HS, with interesting results. In groups, we wrote a list of ways the world has changed in the last 25 years; then, we wrote a list of skills you need to succeed in today's world; then, we talked about whether or not we were teaching any of those skills in school. Many of the teachers were excited! and inspired!! and ready to add new lessons and techniques to their curriculum!!!

    …and a bunch of them fell asleep/left early.

    An ongoing conversation at our school is about the "hidden curriculum" in schools–how we're teaching subjects, but also that they're separate and discrete from one another; how sitting down and doing what you're told is the most important skill; and how you need to remember things, but only until the test is over. We're trying to shift that–I'm part of one of the two English/Social Studies teaching teams, with two teachers teaching two "subjects" at once–and this week my team's been teaching presentation skills and the other one's been teaching teamwork. We're thinking about adding Bio/Lit next year (apparently the most-often failed subjects for freshmen are algebra–because they suck at computation and don't understand equations–and biology–because they cant' read at a high enough level to understand the biology textbook).

    But I do think that when you think about how much has changed since the 50s, it becomes clear that our school system as it currently exists does not work. It was designed as a sorting system for an industrial society–it's CALLED the "factory-model school," for fuck's sake!–and therefore doesn't work as a way of getting all kids to a level of proficiency; it works as a way of grading what kids have accomplished in a pre-set period of time and leaving behind the ones who didn't make it. No Child Left Behind is a joke on many levels, but mostly that it's being applied to a system that is DESIGNED to leave children behind.

    As far as them being incurious–it's like M says: I can't take a 15 year old who's been beaten down for the last 10 years and told not to ask hard questions, to just write down what the teacher says and regurgitate it ten days later on the quiz, and who furthermore has just gotten knocked up/found out his mother's back on meth/been put in charge of her little brother's potty training/had the water shut off at his home for the third time this year and MAGICALLY make that kid SUPER INTERESTED in VERB TENSES!!!!! or ALLITERATION!!!!!!!!. No matter how many exclamation points I use.

    ANYWAY. I am clearly ranting here. The answer is radical paradigm shift in education. I will go sit quietly over here and work on my flow chart for the revamping of the language arts curriculum.

  • Hello,

    The problem of skills versus memorization is that in any learning process, analysis has to come before synthesis. By this I mean we have to acquire knowledge before that knowledge can be applied. So in that regards it makes sense that in the early grades we acquire the knowledge.

    Critical thinking can be nurtured once this basic knowledge is mastered. I doubt anyone can write a good essay, without knowing, how a sentence is constructed. Now the methods by which this basic knowledge is acquired is debatable.

    Note, however that students do not like learning knowledge because it can be very boring. However, even the professionals are instructed on this. Why are are pitchers and quarterbacks drilled on mechanics? It's because before you can throw a football you need to be forced to learn how to throw a football properly.

    That's why it is important that people learn basic civics whether it is through rote memorization or through history of the republic. This has to happen before we can engage those said students in critical thinking.


  • Taking our lesson from education's biggest competitors, TV, the Internet, video games, and IPods, wouldn't it be better if we made education more entertaining? Knowing a bit about how long-term memory works what if we asked students studying the Constitution to visualize themselves on the Run (one) after breaking out of prison using a "RASP in a Pie" (religion, assembly, speech, press, petition) their friends brought them to cut their way through the bars of a political prison? How about they visualize going to the Zoo (two) and bears are bearing arms while they patrol the grounds? And then maybe their mother is kicking soldiers out of their treehouse (tree for three) and charging them a quarter for the little bit of time the soldiers were in there.
    If we're going to ask our students to memorize things we think they should remember for the rest of their life, we should help them by creating little stories like this. IMHO.

  • As wood, clay or metal are media for sculpture, so facts are the media of critical thinking. Developing critical thinking skills without knowing any facts is learning to sculpt air.

  • @Ostrowski: Unfortunately, the idea that teachers should entertain is already entrenched in the educational system and it is one of the reasons we are in the pickle we are in now. Research suggests that Sesame-Street-style learning actually reduces attention spans further.

    More generally, however, I think we need to be careful not to romanticize the schools of yesteryear. Again, to instruct by anecdote, I went to one of the top-ranked public high schools in the country (Class of 1970) and the things some of my peers (some of them Honors students) are saying on Facebook these days are appalling. They seem to have no concept of rights to speedy and fair trials by juries of one's peers, freedom of association, separation of church and state, and the list goes on.

    I will say, though, that my generation certainly can write better sentences.

  • I've had an idea. There's no point in teaching rote facts when the kids can find them when needed, yes? So why don't essay questions on tests involve something like sitting the kid down at a workstation with a monitored internet connection and telling them to write a few paragraphs on a subject. If they copy and paste from a website (easy enough to check with this setup), they fail. Grade them on how well they can find the information, synthesize disparate pieces into a sensible whole, and use it to answer an essay-type question. If this is supposedly what they're so good at, why not just test them on that?

    Perhaps the problem is that bromides about how web-savvy our ignorant youngsters are is more of the same meaningless handwavery that M wrote about above, and the results would be just as disappointing.

    Kids today are web-savvy. They're web-savvy enough to go to Yahoo! Answers and paste in their homework questions.

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