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The New School of Google

Why make students memorize facts easily found on the Net? We must change how we teach.

Nick Smith 3 Feb

Nick Smith, a Vancouver and Sunshine Coast high school English teacher for the past 15 years, received a reader-supported Tyee fellowship to write the series Teaching that Inspires.

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Learning the critical thinking she really needs?

I graduated in the early '80s, back when the net was what you used to pull fish out of the water. My fellow graduates and I had come to accept the "spray and pray" model of education used by our teachers: Spray us with facts for 12 years, and pray that enough of them stuck, that by the time we got the handshake and diploma we were well informed enough to survive the adversities of the real world.

Though my buddies and I may not have received a "good education," it was certainly good enough at the time. I was the only one of the crew who took up a career in teaching, yet, we are all now teachers in a sense, as we help our own kids get through school.

Our generation grew up in a world of pinball machines, handwritten bankbooks, and record players. Yet here we are with receding hairlines and greying temples, watching our children spread the familiar textbooks and fill-in-the-blank worksheets onto the kitchen table. This should give us pause.

Our parents could never have guessed what kind of world our generation would encounter; the fate of our children is even less certain. We don't know what answers they will need to seek out -- those facts might not even exist yet. We don't even know the questions they will have to ask. There is no worksheet or textbook that will prepare them for what lays ahead.

The real crisis in education today is that we continue to reward students for memorizing facts that they could easily look up, while failing to require them to develop the critical thinking skills that they will require to make sense of a world more complex than we can imagine.

Revisiting a critical thinking mentor

Dr. Roland Case instilled in me the importance of critical thinking back at SFU, when I was a student teacher in the early '90s. He was kind enough to pick up the conversation with me when I called him recently.

"I don't think passing on information was ever taken by any serious person to be the main objective of schools," he tells me. "Rather, we are supposed to teach the facts through the skills and what emerges is understanding." He surmises, "Facts on their own are pretty useless."

Maeve Talbot-Kelly, a family friend who attends Grade 11 in Sechelt, agrees. "Most of the facts that we have to learn are seemingly pointless," she tells me. In particular, Maeve likes science, but cannot understand why she has to learn "tonnes of facts about atoms and tiny molecular things. It's such a waste of time," she confesses.

Despite being a bright student with high marks, Maeve has a hard time recalling when she was last really challenged to understand a concept at school and offers to get back to me. "It is always learning about a subject and being tested on the facts," she tells me resignedly.

Dr. Case points out that although the Ministry of Education will say that students must develop understanding of a subject, many educators misinterpret that to mean handing out information and asking them to regurgitate it.

I ask Dr. Case to help me probe around this one. If strict recall of information, as he says "is not the goal of education, has not been the expectation of ministries, it is not what has been asked for," then why does it still take place in this system, especially in light of web browsers that allow students to look up far more than they could ever possibly remember?

He explains that multiple-choice tests that emphasize recall of information are easier for students to write and easier to mark. The high-stakes tests, such as the B.C. provincial exams, are largely multiple choice. "Multiple-choice tests signal to kids that much of what you have to do is memorize facts and then you can forget them the next day," Dr. Case laments.

'It's on the provincial exam'

Maeve Talbot-Kelly tells me that her teachers will emphasize the importance of particular bits of information by telling students that "it is on the provincial exam." Since her teachers are not allowed to know exactly what content will appear on the exam, she explains, "they have to teach us everything."

The problem at this point seems straightforward: We ask for understanding, but test for memorization. What we should be doing is testing for the ability "to use that information in thoughtful ways," as Dr. Case puts it. He feels that although the Internet has not created the deficit of thinking skills, the glut of information it presents to students who do not know how to make sense of it, "makes it even more unfortunate."

It is interesting that when safety is at issue in the real world, we test people for what they can do, not for remembering facts. Apprentice welders have their work subjected to stress-tests, drivers must complete a road test, pre-service nurses must prove themselves in clinical.

Dr. Case and I discuss how students should also be tested on what they can do, rather than just recall, in the academic areas. A provincial exam could look like this: We could give them a situation based on what they had studied, and then present them with a set of documents, and a problem to solve. He explains, "They would have to justify their answer in light of what they have learned."

So, instead of being asked to circle the correct answer to a series of questions on Confederation such as "What year did Confederation occur?" students would be given some readings that give varying views on Confederation. They would then have to answer the question "How has Confederation affected you as a Canadian?"

To respond to this question, students would have to show that they understood what it meant. They could not just guess at the answer. "These authentic tests do not look like traditional ones, but they can be done in two hours on a large-scale basis," he concludes.

Developing these skills will allow students to read various accounts of a news item on the Internet, then use those various perspectives to decide what they really think about the issue at hand.

It will also allow them to read a blog posting and decide for themselves whether or not the writer is drawing upon appropriate evidence to reach particular conclusions.

Where we need to go

Though we might agree that deeper understanding of content and critical thinking skills are what are needed for today's students to make sense of what they find online, fundamental changes such as this will require a lot from everyone involved and will undoubtedly draw resistance.

Dr. Case recalls developing critical thinking measures for the Ministry of Education some years back. Eventually, "they pulled them from the survey, because the teachers thought that the kids would not do well on these items and certain officials did not want to have measures that would show up these shortcomings."

This raises a valid point. We can require a certain depth of understanding and test for critical thinking, but must be careful not to overshoot our mark. What will we do if the students are just not up for it?

Dr. Case recognizes this and says that our goal must be to make learning "more enticing," not harder, if we want school to remain relevant in the face of the plethora of information that students are encountering online.

Too many students, he tells me, are under the impression that education is about finding a fact in a textbook and moving it to a slot on a worksheet. What is required are "more challenging tasks," he concludes.

Don't cover the subject, uncover it

There is an adage in education that teachers should be "uncovering" the curriculum rather than merely "covering" it. The complaint from teachers has been that there is not enough time to really explore any subject in the depth required to really get students thinking about it. The ministry has recently made a significant gesture in the right direction by reducing the amount of curriculum that teachers have to cover in most subjects so that they can do just that.

As Dr. Case articulates, "The danger in trying to cover all of the facts is a paradox -- you miss what is important."

For example, a Social Studies 11 curriculum document makes clear that students are expected to be able to "explain how Canadians can effect change at the provincial and federal levels." Understanding this is necessary, but it is not easy for the average sixteen year old. In order to really get it, they must go through the process of identifying unfair laws, then impressing their point of view on those who can do something about it. This takes time. It is so much easier to just assign a passage from the textbook, give them a worksheet to fill in and draw up a list of terms to remember for a quiz sometime down the road.

Hopefully, an exercise like the former, that might have them emailing an MLA and posting a response to an article in an online publication such as The Tyee, will engage students more than the strictly academic exercise of putting the right word into the correct slot. If so, then young people might accept the learning they acquire at school as relevant in that it will help them in their lives beyond high school.

We have an important job here in teaching them how they will make sense of a world that continues to get more complex with each day. I am not saying that this will make them like school, but that, with time, it might start to make some sense to them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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