"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, May 17, 2013

Coherence and Knowledge in Basic Education

Acquisition of skills is overemphasized in education to the detriment of accumulating knowledge. A brand new computer with a fast processor is certainly nice, but without data to work with, the computer is still not useful. How an individual performs in society not only depends on what this person knows what to do, but as important, on what this person knows. Excellent physicians, for example, are those who could correctly diagnose an illness and provide the appropriate prescription or treatment. This ability does not come out of a vacuum of know-how alone, but as crucial, from a vast array of experience and knowledge. There is certainly a huge amount of facts out there and obviously, one human mind cannot absorb all of it. Thus, it is tempting to think that basic education simply has to equip the learner with the capacity to learn, often neglecting to teach the student something. It is a grave error to assume that skills are apart from knowledge. Basic education must strive to impart knowledge to the students and the fact that this is a gigantic task only means that such attempt must be coherent and not fragmented.

There is a recent article by Isagani Ong in the Philippine Star that boasts of some of the features of the new basic education curriculum recently signed into law by Philippine president Aquino. In the article, Ong talks about the spiral approach:
"Whether science is explicitly or implicitly taught, however, it will be taught in a spiral manner. That means that, as early as Grade 1, physics, statistics, and so on will be taught, but in such a small dose that pupils and parents will not even know that these are in the curriculum. In Grade 2, exactly the same topics will be taught, but on a little bit deeper level. Every grade level, the same topics will be tackled, but always from a broader or deeper perspective, until by the end of Grade 12, students will have such a sophisticated grasp of science that they will be ready for the research demanded by higher education."
A spiral curriculum easily lends to a fragmented approach to learning. For coherence, it is important that a learner is given the opportunity to get immersed in the subject. This is only possible if students are provided long enough time to familiarize and focus. Small doses and switching frequently between unrelated topics put so much burden on one's brain especially on children. Learning requires "working memory", which is not as large as one's total memory. "Working memory" is that part of the brain that helps on tasks currently at hand. Its capacity is quite limited that with incoherence, it cannot properly function. In a spiral curriculum, it is highly likely that students will get stuck at the lower levels of each domain and each year will simply be a repeat of previous lessons.

Opposite to Ong's vision of education, Dr. Rebecca Keller, who has a Ph.D. degree in biochemistry, thinks that children should be given enough time to absorb the material being taught. This actually requires depth, not breadth. Keller has developed a science curriculum for home-schooled children in the United States. One example is a semester-long lesson in chemistry designed for first graders:

Above figure captured from Elementary School Chemistry
Overemphasizing skills and neglecting knowledge truly denies how a child learns. Cognitive skills are not acquired without context. Even with entertainment, one does not cycle through different movies. Instead, one watches a movie from beginning to end. With numerous cable channels, the best way to get nothing at all is to keep surfing through channels. Yet, this wasteful exercise is likewise being applied to basic education.

When a child enters kindergarten for the first time, it is only expected that children will have different starting skills, backgrounds and experiences. There are gaps right at the beginning of schooling. These gaps will only further widen if schools do not pay attention to its major purpose of imparting knowledge. Children of parents who did not finish secondary education are less likely to learn science at home. Therefore, if schools do not perform its job of teaching science, no one will fulfill this obligation. Children go through a smorgasbord of lessons outside school. Having a similar approach in school hence denies a child a systematic, structured and coherent education.

In the Winter 2013 issue of the City Journal, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote an article, "A Wealth of Words". A founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has always emphasized the importance of content in education. In this article, strong correlations between vocabulary and achievement are highlighted. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. then proceeds on how a student develops and widens his or her vocabulary. In developing a vocabulary, reading a dictionary or a word list are neither efficient nor inviting ways to go. Instead, making connections often facilitates correct guessing of what new words may mean. The context is important. The subject brings life to the words and only in immersion, does one really enrich vocabulary, for the simple reason that vocabulary is in fact knowledge. I truly enjoy reading articles by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and I encourage you to read this one. The following paragraphs are especially important:
...To make the necessary school changes in the United States, an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas. Of these, the idea that most requires overturning is how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future. 
How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball....





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