September 30, 2009

I don't know why I bother ...

Stephen Downes has another good post on knowledge and expertise.  And, by good I mean that it serves as a good springboard to demonstrate why his understanding is off.   In any event it is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the topic (and in which Stephen has shown up in the comments to serve as the foil once again).

Stephen attacks Willingham for the following statement:  "Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information."  The accuracy of this statement depends on whether the reader can fill in the missing "knowledge" (not facts).  Stephen pounces on an offhand example in which he is able to fill in the missing knowledge with a logical deduction.  Fair enough, but this doesn't prove the general case.

In the comments, I pose the following test to show the importance of content knowledge.

Here are four questions that are domain specific. Each is readily answerable with minimal knowledge in the specific domain and some general reasoning skills. However, let's assume you lack the required content knowledge and a means for acquiring that knowledge. Use your (superior) general reasoning skills to derive the same answer an expert would give for each.


  • The total enthalpy of any non-isolated thermodynamic system tends to decrease over time, approaching a minimum value. Why?
  • As the location of the subatomic particle becomes more precise, what would you infer about its momentum?
  • Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run. Where is Jones and the runner?
  • When John walked out onto the street, he nictitated rapidly. Where might John have just come from?

Stephen, responds with the folowing admission: "yes, you need domain knowledge to answer requests for facts within that domain. So what?"

Notice the crafty substitution of "facts" for "knowledge" -- A lovely misleading rhetorical flourish which I coincidently just noted:

Arguments for much more reasoning and less content (a necessary tradeoff, given the time constraints) in K-12 science begain decades ago. Eventually, the idea became a catch phrase. "Content" was redefined to function as a synonym for "facts" (or "mere facts") independent of reasoning. But defining content that way is nothing more than a rhetorical move. No honest study of science textbooks and lessons nationwide, not even from the benighted decades preceding the launch of sputnik, could conclude that just memorizable facts were required, with no reasoning. Facts were (and are) taught, and facts must be learned if any discipline is to be understoood and practiced. The rhetorical flourishes of those arguing for more scientific reasoning have affected some people's perceptions, but they have not changed the reality that, in general, science curricula have never been exclusively lists of facts to be memorized, devoid of the means by which those facts are discovered and gain acceptance in the scientific community.
And then the back and forth begins in the comments which I think is the important and relevant bit.

My argument is simple.  In those domains (pretty much every subject taught in school) in which a prior knowledge of content is required for understanding and using a person's general reasoning ability within that domain, shouldn't that prior knowledge be learned/acquired in school since not learning the content precludes understanding?

4 comments:

Downes said...

A crafty misleading flourish? Oh, if only your own words did not say otherwise.

See http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2009/09/ken-derosa-and-facts.html

Dick Schutz said...

Q: "In those domains (pretty much every subject taught in school) in which a prior knowledge of content is required for understanding and using a person's general reasoning ability within that domain, shouldn't that prior knowledge be learned/acquired in school since not learning the content precludes understanding?

A: Yes

(And you win the prize for the longest sentence of the day that actually parses. Kids need practice in reading such sentences, since they rarely, if ever, encounter,the syntax is rarely if ever encountered. They also need instruction in how to use forms such as "which" and "shouldn't to string clauses together to get away from limited "subject, predicate, object" sentences. And they need instruction in the basic sentence form before they can communicate using more complex forms.)

Interesting that your sentence includes some Technical Lexicon that would be beyond many kids:

domain

knowledge (which may be beyond you me, and the other commmenters)

reasoning (ditto)

precludes

When kids can't "comprehend" they aren't just "barking at print." they wouldn't comprehend any better were the communication spoken.

Another interesting thing about the dialog between you and Stephen is that you guys can read the same passage and "comprehend" entirely differently. That pretty much knocks the notion of "extracting the author's meaning from print."

You two bring different belief systems and different background knowledge to the table. Readers who bring the the same background and belief as Stephen are likely interpret it the same way Stephen does. Ditto for your interpretation.

Occam's Razor supports the title of your post.

Anonymous said...

In order for the schools to be able to teach the prerequisite knowledge, the teacher first has to have the content knowledge and probably more. To present the material well, the teacher needs to appreciate what the content knowledge is based on and where it leads to.

So for schools to have the responsibility desired for student learning, we need to either:

1. change the focus of education school toward content knowledge being primary and pedagogy secondary; or

2. Break the ed school monopoly on who gets certified to teach so that content knowledge is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement.

Until then we'll continue to have semantic games about 21st century skills, Balanced Literacy, "exposure to AP courses", child centered pedagogy, inquiry learning, and other excuses for not asking teachers to provide explicit instruction of content.

RMD said...

I'm not sure why you bother either . . .

Downes, et. al., will never change their mind.