kitchen table math, the sequel: Information isn't knowledge

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Information isn't knowledge

re: Ignorance is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students, Education World reports:
[Henriksson] hastens to add, however, that the book is not a criticism of teachers. Society's interest in what is current tends to eclipse attempts to focus on history. "We are bombarded with an array of material, and it is hard for kids to sort out what's important and what's not. We are losing our common body of knowledge. Teachers are battling uphill against an information revolution that devalues the past."

Still, Henriksson, who teaches a world history survey course taken mostly by college freshmen, points out that many students lack the most basic historical and geographical background. At the beginning of a recent term, he says, he distributed a series of basic history and geography questions to 80 of his students. The majority did not know that Dublin is in Ireland. "Either they never absorbed what they were taught, or they were never exposed to it," Henriksson said.

Some students confuse periods of history in their essays, Henriksson notes, citing the following example from the book: "Wars fought in the 1950s and after include the Crimean War, Vietnam, and the Six-Minute War. President Eisenhower resorted to the bully pool pit. John F. Kennedy worked closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis."

Some students are simply confused, however, including the one who claimed, "Judyism had one big God, named 'Yahoo.'"

Based on his own experience, Henriksson says, the following general understandings represent the basic accurate historical knowledge one can assume of U.S. college students:
  • At some point "in the distant past," the United States fought a war of independence against a major European or Asian power.
  • George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon were presidents of the United States. Washington was the first president and Lincoln was in office a long time ago.
  • The United States still suffers from the legacy of slavery, whenever that occurred.
  • The Civil War, which took place sometime between 1750 and 1930, had something to do with slavery.
  • Adolf Hitler, "a foreigner of some kind," was a bad person.
  • There was at least one world war but not more than three.
On the subject of common knowledge, I'm pretty sure I have only one student who knew what an adjective was when the semester began.



11 comments:

C T said...

At some point "in the distant past," the United States fought a war of independence against a major European or Asian power.

Eurasia, Eastasia, what's the difference....

froggiemama said...

The longer I teach, the more I realize that "exposing" a student to factoids isn't the same thing as the student actually LEARNING the material. I am sure that the students who did not know Dublin is in Ireland were "exposed" to that fact many times in school. I bet anything that they even had it as a test question more than once. I know that my kids have been asked similar questions in K12. But most students simply cram the factoid into their brain for the test, devoid of any context or structure, and more importantly, NOT CARING AT ALL. They have no reason to remember that Dublin is in Ireland.

I see this all the time with my college students. I teach an introductory course, and cover certain material in depth. Yet a year later, when I meet those same students again in a later course, none of them remember any of the material! And this is a course in their major - you would expect them to care. But they don't, and they know that we will accomodate them by reteaching the same stuff over and over.

So likely the professor was simply running into that phenomenon when he gave his test.

Lsquared said...

Also, from my very small sample, 7 out of 8 students think they know what an action verb is, but 3 of them think "more" and "less" are examples of action verbs.

Anonymous said...

"But most students simply cram the factoid into their brain for the test, devoid of any context or structure, and more importantly, NOT CARING AT ALL. They have no reason to remember that Dublin is in Ireland.

I see this all the time with my college students. I teach an introductory course, and cover certain material in depth. Yet a year later, when I meet those same students again in a later course, none of them remember any of the material! And this is a course in their major - you would expect them to care. But they don't, and they know that we will accomodate them by reteaching the same stuff over and over."

It isn't just a lack of caring (although that has to be a large component).

The "problem" is that the way we tend to teach stuff is sprint-for-a-month, then test, then never see the material again. The kids need spaced repetition, either by returning to the material again and again or by *using* the material a lot for a number of years. We tend to do neither in school.

So ... the kid "learns" that Dublin is in Ireland. And then the kid is tested on this and properly remembers (and gets his or her 'A'). And then ... the kid *never* needs to know this again. So five years later the kid has forgotten (probably more like one month later the kid has forgotten ...).

If the school(s) teaching this stuff cared that the kid remembered, there would be a geography review of this stuff one month later. And then a month after that. And then maybe two months after that. And so on for several *years*.

But we DON'T DO THAT!!!!!!

The kids will cover a unit of explorers, memorize the 10-15 they are supposed to "know" (along with some facts, like what/where they discovered and which country they were representing at the time and when this occurred). Then they get a test. And they never need to know who Ponce De Leon is ever again.

Is it a mystery why they forget?

In 8th grade I did a science unit on hardness. Diamond is a 10 (and is the hardest). I have no idea what the other nine are. And I don't think I've ever needed to know. I didn't care at the time (and, really, don't much care now), but the way it was taught was not conducive to me remembering this long-term in any event.

In high school biology we spent a few weeks (?) on the "Krebs Citric Cycle". And then were done. And, to the best of my knowledge, I've never encountered it again. Not built for long term remembering.

Okay ... breathe deeply ... end rant :-)

For what it is worth, this is one of the KEY reasons that I'm homeschooling. We try to structure things so that we *do* have periodic refreshes with the hope that come the end of 12th grade more of this stuff will have stuck than in a typical K-12 curriculum. We'll see how it works in about 1/2 a decade :-)

But blaming the kids when the structure is designed for non-retention of knowledge is silly.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Round two ... I realize that I missed something.

One might expect that this "learn for the test" wouldn't apply to a kids college major.

Well, maybe.

I find that the stuff I really care about I tend to learn "deeply", but ...

1) Most kids are in college for a ticket to a job, not to learn material, and
2) The kids have been trained to "learn for the test" for 12+ years before they get to college. Unlearning this sort of behavior is hard.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Round three (why, no, this isn't one of my hot-buttons? Why do you ask?):

"...hastens to add, however, that the book is not a criticism of teachers. Society's interest in what is current tends to eclipse attempts to focus on history. 'We are bombarded with an array of material, and it is hard for kids to sort out what's important and what's not. We are losing our common body of knowledge. Teachers are battling uphill against an information revolution that devalues the past.'

Still, Henriksson, who teaches a world history survey course taken mostly by college freshmen, points out that many students lack the most basic historical and geographical background."

What is funny here is the lack of historical sense shown by Henriksson.

In 1943, the New York Times ran an article with the headline: "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." The article was bemoaning the sad state on historical knowledge shown by incoming college freshmen.

So ... it looks like not much has changed. Are teachers today "battling uphill against an information revolution that devalues the past?" How about the teachers in the 1930s and 1940s? The same? Different?

My guess is that the problem is what I describe as the one-month-sprint-to-test, which we had back then and still have today.

The way we "teach" these subjects in high school does not lend itself to long term remembering. It didn't back then and it still doesn't. And the kids aren't remembering any better today than they did back then. Which shouldn't be surprising because we aren't doing things much differently :-(

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Well, I do know that Dublin is in Ireland. But I can't tell you how I know that or what class I learned it in. I know it was never on a worksheet. I know I never had to take a test on major cities of Europe. I don't think it was part of any particular curriculum I've ever been taught. But I know James Joyce wrote "Dubliners". And I think he was Irish. And I've read books like "1914" -- not for any class. I think the point of reveling and despairing in such examples of student ignorance is not" "oh, what lousy schooling". It's that you have to have a pretty closed-off, curiosity-free world view to maintain such a level of ignorance. Think of all the things you must not have read in your life, all the news reports you must have tuned out to never have stumbled upon the name "Dublin" with enough context to place it as a city in Ireland. It's like never learning that you have to breathe to live. "Didn't you get the worksheet? It's inhale, then exhale, and repeat..."

cranberry said...

Many of his students are unaccustomed to reading, Henriksson says. Exposing them to primary history sources is a good way to get them interested in reading and in the past.

If you're "unaccustomed to reading," it's hard to garner much knowledge of the world. I know I learned much of my knowledge from historical novels.

I think history also suffers from the implicit valuation of history as one of those "easy" areas of study, i.e., it's not a STEM subject. As far as I know, until very recently, most students were required to learn something of the history of their state, and a year of US history. World history, not so much. Perhaps the Common Core could set some standards in the field.

If you're surrounded by people who don't know much about history, it's easy not to realize that this is important.

lgm said...

>>Some students are simply confused, however, including the one who claimed, "Judyism had one big God, named 'Yahoo.'"

Some students have a background of invented spelling. Combine that with the auditory presentations and accents that their teachers use, and of course they don't know how to spell what they are hearing. They've never seen some of these words in print.

That won't stop any of these teachers from blaming the student though.

cranberry said...

Yes, it's clear the student was trying to write, "Judaism had one big God, named Yahweh."

The student might have been dyslexic.

SteveH said...

My son is a sponge for knowledge. He has a great memory, but we talk about what we call the "hiatus" effect. It's happened many times. Long ago, he saw that word and asked what it meant. I told him. Soon thereafter, he started seeing the word all over the place. This has happened for all sorts of things. It's not like he had never seen the word before. It just finally sunk in. There are many surprising things that have popped up that he doesn't know.

Some talk about advertising's "Rule of Seven", but others claim that this really doesn't happen. I don't know. A rigorous class should shorten that delay, but there is too much that kids are supposed to absorb. There needs to be delays and repetition. There needs to be a framework.

I'm a fan of knowledge or fact frameworks. While I don't like the idea of memorizing all of the presidents in order, I do like the idea of memorizing key historical points in time and building on that. While one may never end up being able to slot any president into a decade period, he/she should be able to remember more than a few key historical points in time. I don't think you can learn history without being able to do that.

I like history much more now because I have so many fact pieces to my framework. Whenever I read something new, it has a place to go - I can attach it to something. One could think of it as a chicken and egg process, but I find that facts allow more knowledge, not the other way around. The knowledge might add in more facts to my framework, but I really need the timeline and fact framework to absorb knowledge.

My son's K-6 school loved to do this thematically, but it was too much knowledge without enough of a fact framework. One first grade thematic unit was on the arctic. There was a story about some animals and an Inuit boy. There was something about global warming (of course), but the school never provided any sort of fact framework. They never talked about the globe, continents, or seas. They never talked about seasons and why they happen.

I really don't like the modern denigration of facts. If one only introduces facts as an add-on to knowledge, it will take a long time for those facts to form any sort of framework. That doesn't mean that rote memorization of dates is the solution, but many educators avoid memorization of anything. Nobody complains about remembering facts, but what is the best way to do that?

With my son, I've tried to use "teaching moments" to build up his historical timeline framework with facts. The facts drive the knowledge and the knowledge reinforces the facts. As long as I don't try to cram too much into his head (as I'm wont to do) in a short amount of time, it works.