Monday, March 4, 2013

Facts matter too...

This is going to go against the normal grain of my flipped class, multiple retake, critical thinking teacher persona, but I make no real apology for it.

Facts do matter....

As with anything else in education, politics, religion, whatever, we set ourselves up for failure when we make false dichotomies.  The one that irks me every time I see it in education circles is the idea that facts don't matter because people can just look them up.  That all that matters is critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills don't happen in a vacuum, your ability to think critically is often predicated on knowledge that you have already, facts one might say.

My ability to critically consider complex issues and do things like analyze the social norms of 19th Century America and relate those to modern political trends depends a lot on what I already know.  Yes, I could look things up and do research about them, but my ability to do research and even to "just use Google" as a lot of educators tout now depends a lot on what I already know about those things.

I'm not talking about memorization of trivia, or a bunch of random facts, but we dilute critical thinking skills when we minimize knowing things.  I think that each of us knows this intuitively, but it doesn't seem to fit our paradigm of higher order thinking skills and quadrant 4 and the upper part of Bloom's taxonomy above all.

I have a 2nd grader at home who is interested in science and as with a lot of 2nd graders has a lot of very intriguing and interesting questions.  These questions don't come out of the blue, they come as he learns things, and sometimes that comes from repetition and remembering things.  He knows a ridiculous amount of things about say, the human body, from watching a ton of BrainPop videos over and over and over.  Some would argue that he just knows facts and trivia, but it is the knowledge of those facts that leads him into the more complex thought that we are shooting for.

Knowing facts isn't the enemy of critical thinking, it has the ability to make critical thinking that much deeper, to make the connections faster and to have more ways to make those connections.

Daniel Willingham talks about this very coherently in his book Why Kids Don't Like School, which is a great read by the way.

Thinking critically is about making connections.  If there are few points of reference, only a few connections can be made.  If there are a lot of points of reference, there are a lot more nodes to connect together.

I will grant you that I am biased as a science teacher.  I get that we want data analysis to be a big part of things, but if we think that is it, we are foolish.  I suffered a lot in my research group in college because as an undergraduate, I didn't know as much about organics as my graduate peers.  That meant that my contributions in meetings and to the overall team effort was lacking.

Please don't misconstrue what I'm saying, I agree, critical thinking is tops.  I never count a student wrong for not doing things my way and I encourage them to analyze every situation.  But there are facts that need to be known as well, models that need to be there in order to understand the deeper stage of models.  If we continue to belittle content, then reading a chart for a multiple choice answer becomes the extent of what we can do.  A researcher doesn't just critically analyze her data, she analyzes it and holds it up to paradigms and models that she already knows to see if it fits or breaks those.

But if you don't know any paradigms or models in the first place, chart reading will only get you so far...

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right. I never really put that much thought into it about. I have a 6 year old and we are pretty much the same in that he has been exposed to a variety of (mostly science) media and books. He does seem to have a more sophisticated perspective and asks deeper driving questions based on his knowledge. It may be something like "Why is the dolphins tail pointed one way and the sharks the other way?" which sounds somewhat menial. However he had to have a background knowledge of the geometries and orientation of the "flukes" to even consider that their purpose may be different - or that there are different means to the same purpose. To dive into that comparison question, he had to know more than just the fact that sharks and dolphins are different which doesn't require much on the order of critical thinking skills. The entertaining part for us is that much of the vernacular is above his reach and his outright phonetic tackles are often pretty amusing.
    I appreciate your perspective here because I am so often vehemently defending what students need to know in order to truly understand what follows.
    We 'sort of' read the Willingham book in one of my Grad classes last summer. Each class grouping focused on one chapter of the book and we came up with some quick presentations of those chapters. I'll have to add it to the summer reading bucket list; the course was condensed and we glossed over much of it at best.