"…the educators who promote mushiness and ether"

The recent Edtechtalk Brainstorm is still rattling in my head. A self-professed non-educator, Joe, listened to the show and cc’ed me in on a message he sent to my husband, John:

Ah, the disassembling of the educational bullsh** and actually demanding the students end up with facts in their heads, it was the Boston Massacre all over again.

Let them learn facts!!!!. You cannot understand context, unless you know facts. For example, it is a critical concept to understand that it took six years from the first shot to the Americans saying the hell with England and telling them to stuff it. Six years is a material portion of the context…

I think it is interesting that we the non-educators [John and Joe] have taken on the “educators” who promote mushiness and ether, and have argued for precision and facts.

Indeed.

Our job as teachers is to connect what we teach with the rest of the world. To make our curriculum relevant to the world.

The world is made up of facts: the numbers, the names, the locations, and the dates and the places, the verb endings…and yes even the adjective-noun agreements. To tell our students that having a vague general knowledge of these things will serve them well is, in my opinion, being negligent. The real world is a place where numbers matter, where dates matter, where the proper conjugation of verbs can make or break a conversation with a stranger.

Bud the Teacher has weighed in on this one. I will get over the fact (someday) that a commenter to his blog (Jim?) referred to my voice and opinion as that of the “cranky old man voice.” And because I am married to another one of those “cranky” voices, I will print here my husband’s response to Bud’s blog:

The argument devolved into an either/or conversation when in fact, the cranky old people were arguing that BOTH are essential – to know the date, i.e. the year in which the event occurred as the placeholder for the context. Each is equally important and knowing both leads to a keen and sharp understanding of history.

One of the real jobs of grade and high school teachers has been to teach young minds how to think. Part of thinking is knowing important information to support an argument or understand a context. Dates are a part of the exercise of thinking and understanding. Unfortunately, the response by too many teachers to this point reveals the major problem in pubic education, which is the tendency to teach to the middle. Too often, in public schools, teachers settle for “adequate” education. Whereas, excellence in education is thought impossible except perhaps for those corralled into “gifted and talented” programs.

If we are training youngsters to think critically and carefully in preparation for college then dates are as important as context. It is not unreasonable to hold kids to the highest of standards, which means understanding the context of course, but also the year in which the event happened. If you don’t agree with that, then we can echo the product of this type of pedagogy, “Whateverrrr”

I welcome your comments.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

3 Comments

  1. Barbara · December 24, 2005 Reply

    (this was sent from Joe, but it never quite made it to the blog)

    The discussion about the Boston Massacre brings to mind larger issues in contemporary education: The teaching of facts, concepts and “critical thinking skills.” The argument that I have heard from educators ad nauseam and goes something like this: “We do not teach facts, because they are ever changing, and always can be looked up at the time. Rather, we teach critical thinking skills.”

    Really?

    Tell me. How does one critically think about a subject without the facts that pertain to the subject? Are facts really all that changeable? Does not Force still equal Mass times Acceleration? Does not E still equal M times C squared? Is not the date of the Boston Massacre the same as it was fifty years ago?

    The truth is that most facts do not change and most thinking, critical or not cannot be meaningfully done without a basis of facts. That concept, by the way, is a fact – and it will not change.

    In my mind, the question is less about what should be taught and more about what should be valued, especially as a measure of excellence. Certainly it is important to know the date in order to place subsequent events into proper perspective. It is more important to value that knowledge as a measure of achievement and excellence. I cannot conceive of excellence being achieved by mere understanding the event and its consequence but not knowing
    when it took place. Nor can I conceive that excellence is the knowing of when it happened but not what evolved as a result. Properly teaching and learning, especially with excellent performance requires both.

    In my view, education must demand precision. It must especially demand attention to facts and details in order to achieve ratings of excellent performance. To use a couple of spectacular examples, consider the event of crashing a Mars Lander on the surface because the engineers forgot to convert between the metric system and the inches and feet measurement system. Consider also the Hubble Space Telescope that was delivered in orbit myopic because the engineers forgot about the refractive index of air versus empty space. In both cases, the engineers knew about the concepts, they merely forgot about the details.

    I submit that this is not surprising. They all grew up in and education system that has for decades de-emphasized precision, facts, accuracy and attention to detail over concepts and “critical thinking skills.” Next time you get the chance, and as examples, ask someone to critically discuss the differences between the Keynesian and Austrian schools of economics or the differences of Light Water over Fast Neutron nuclear reactors. (Or make up your own question.) If the person has no facts on either of these questions to start with, you will only receive a blank stare. If you get cogent, accurate answers, you will no doubt think, “This person knows what he is talking about.” Right, he knows his facts and can put them together.

    Remember that the Apollo Landers did not crash, but the Mars Lander did. Was their something different in the education system that brought up the two sets of engineers? I submit that there was. In the later cohort, they were taught to look it up, do not try to carry it in your head, and close
    answers are good enough.

    But close was not good enough. It is not good enough in space exploration, building design, bridge construction, accounting, tax return preparation, bill paying, automobile manufacturing, or any of the complex functions that average people perform day after day in our society. It’s only good enough in the places where we transmit our knowledge and values into the next generation: our schools. Does this make sense to you? It does not to me.

    But what about the average Johnny? Well, he might not get the details, in which case he will get a “B” or a “C.” But he will come to understand that accuracy and precision is highly valued. He will come to understand that excellence in work and understanding is required for excellence in performance evaluation.

    He may even come to understand that close is not good enough, not even for government work.

    Joe — the Non-Educator

  2. Art Gelwicks · January 9, 2006 Reply

    Sorry but I have to take you to task over the Mars Lander analogy. Seems to me the analogy is rendered invalid when “Mars Lander” is swapped with “Mars Rover”. I don’t know of any engineer (or professional worth their salt for that matter) that trusts all the facts in their head explicitly without verifying them through other sources.

    Personally I’m not planning on visiting a doctor who doesn’t check his medical reference library, an investment banker who doesn’t check the market, and a teacher who only teaches from the facts in their head.

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