Learning facts vs. hands-on approach

There recently appeared in the Times an article on the Common Core Standards that have been adopted by Ohio Department of Education and our area schools. In that article, a local superintendent gave an example of the sort of curricular change students and parents can expect as a result of the new standards. For that example he used the Periodic Table, suggesting that in the past while there may have been more emphasis on memorizing the entire table and the numbers related to each element, the newer standards might focus more on making sure students can “access, read and use” the information on the Table.

Here we encounter the classic debate in American education; the mastery of subject matter (i.e. facts) versus a more “hands-on, practical, real-world” approach advocated by progressives and purported to make the subject more relevant to learners. Regretfully, the latter view represents today’s orthodoxy in American education. It is rooted in an anti-intellectual bias that suggests because knowledge is changing so quickly in our modern society, and because technology literally puts answers at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason to learn facts so long as we can access them.

This flawed thinking reveals a misunderstanding of how students, and all of us for that matter, learn. Because the mastering of certain subject matter (i.e. facts) is a prerequisite for the acquisition of all future knowledge, we risk limiting students’ potential if we tell them that “accessing, reading, and using” information is enough. Instead, they must actually acquire it, learn it, and make it their own because that will enable them to handle more difficult concepts in the future.

Known as “constructivism” in the field of psychology, this theory of learning says that students are not simply passive vessels for receiving knowledge. Instead they are active participants who construct knowledge as part of the process of making it their own. In turn, this acquired knowledge acts as sort of a mental Velcro attracting and holding new information until it can be assimilated into an ordered mind. Without a foundation of factual knowledge, new information is assimilated poorly, slipping easily from the mind as soon as it enters.

If the goal of our schools is to create “lifelong learners,” or even simply to prepare them for college or the workforce, we must understand how learning occurs. We cannot afford to disdain the learning of facts simply because we have access to those facts via technology. To do so would be to fail to set the foundation for future higher-level learning. In the jargon of today’s educator, we can do little “critical thinking” unless we have something (that’s ours) to think about. Once again, the advocates of Common Core, however well-meaning, are taking education in the wrong direction and area students will pay the price.

Kevin Ritter