September 21, 2009

This Isn't Getting Us Anywhere Fast

There isn't anything more disappointing than finding a long essay that starts off well and promises many insights based at least in part on its length, but then veers off track violently a few paragraphs in. Such wasted potential.

This is what I was thinking by about paragraph 11 (and confirmed by paragraph 15) of Stephen Downes' longish essay on 21st Century Learning.

It is especially disappointing because I've been hoping that someone would advance the argument because it appears that both sides are talking past each other. And, as long as we're talking past each other, the issue doesn't advance. The issue needs to advance because it is an important issue.

Stephen's essay clearly demonstrates where the issue has stagnated.

In paragraphs 1-15 he erects and then dismantles the "students need to learn facts" strawman and assures us that everyone agrees that they do:

Not only do I make these statements, I would say that any person who is an advocate of 21st century learning also makes these statements. I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century skills by saying 'we need facts'. Everybody has already agreed with that.

Then he takes the carcass of that dismantled strawman and proceeds to erect another strawman, the "students need to learn skills" strawman, and naturally assures us that they do:

We know now - and, indeed, have probably always known - that an education based strictly and solely in facts is insufficient.

He then takes the remainder of the essay, the bulk of it, to dismantle this newly erected strawman. He could have just written a few points why skills are important and then cut and pasted a slighted altered version of the paragraph he used in dismantling the "students need to learn facts" strawman:

I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century [facts] by saying 'we need [skills]'. Everybody has already agreed with that.

If anything, it would have saved him the typing of a few thousand words.

Why don't we move the argument to a more productive place. Both sides apparently agree that students need to learn both facts and skills and what they currently are learning is insufficient. The question is which facts, which skills, and how should they be best taught to maximize the knowledge that students need to be both productive and informed and to enable them to continue their learning throughout their life after formal education has been completed.

I'm still trying to work out these issues for myself and hopefully I'll be able to present a coherent essay on the issue in the near future. In the meantime, I am able to point out some of the flawed assumptions that Stephen makes in his essay in the hope that he can get himself back on track and thinking about the same issue from his very different perspective.

First, it isn't impossible to teach people facts. Quite the opposite is the case - we understand, and can prove (and have proved, over and over) that we can teach facts very simply and easily, through repetition, rote, memorization, practice examples, worked examples, and more. People can memorize the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the Koran, whatever. A great deal of our education today in fact turns on this very proposition: it consists of the teaching of facts, and the testing for recall of those facts.

The testing also shows that students are not able to recall those facts very well, despite this supposedly being the primary focus of present education and that facts are supposedly simply and easily taught.

Both sides apparently believe that at least some facts need to be learned and should be able to be readily recalled by students. Both sides also apparently believe that students need more than mere recall of facts. It follows that both sides should be concerned that students aren't able to recall facts if only for the fact that if they can't recall facts, it's unlikely they can do any "higher-order" things with those facts. Yet only one side is concerned over the current state of affairs. The other side is either being disingenuous with its call for the learning of facts or is playing fast and loose with the definition, as you'll soon see. In any event, their stance needs clarification.

When you teach children facts as facts, and when you do it through a process of study and drill, it doesn't occur to children to question whether or not those facts are true, or appropriate, or moral, or legal, or anything else. Rote learning is a short circuit into the brain. It's direct programming. People who study, and learn, that 2+2=4, know that 2+2=4, not because they understand the theory of mathematics, not because they have read Hilbert and understand formalism, or can refute Brouwer and reject intuitionism, but because they know (full stop) 2+2=4.

Again, both sides apparently agree that children should learn facts and to question/analyze facts and the evidence presented that establishes these facts. The implication that direct instruction is an inferior way of learning anything but facts has no empirical support. It's also wrong to imply that direction instruction is synonymous with rote learning and conversely that non-direct instruction isn't rote or is somehow "better."

We want people to know both the theory of mathematics and that 2+2=4. The two are separate things. And, I am especially suspicious when an educator claims to be teaching the "theory of mathematics" as a better way of teaching that 2+2=4 only to find out that the student cannot reliably determine what 2+2 is when questioned.

I used the phrase "it's direct programming" deliberately. This is an analogy we can wrap our minds around. We can think of direct instruction as being similar to direct programming. It is, effectively, a mechanism of putting content into a learner's mind as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that when the time comes later (as it will) that the learner needs to use that fact, it is instantly and easily accessible.

There is certainly no guarantee that direct programming will result in the instant and easy accessibility of content. This conflates the act of acquiring content with the act of retaining the content. It also ignores what we want the learner to do with the content once it has been mechanism acquired, that is, think about it and assimilate it so it can be represented in a structured and orderly way. No one seriously believes that merely learning lots of facts is the end-game of education. The real-end game is the student's ability to think and analyze better (at least in the relative domain of which those facts form the basis). And there's no getting around the fact that those who do know better (i.e., experts) also know more relevant facts and that these same experts don't think any better in areas that they don't know the facts.

Not so long ago, pretty much every bit of information a person needed in his or her life could be taught as a fact, which basic mechanisms - such as literacy - being used to make up the difference. Spending a lot of time teaching facts could be justified, because people needed basic knowledge to survive in an industrial world, needed to be able to understand the basics of language and literature, science and mathematics, and - crucially - not much more. And anything that detracted from that learning made a person less able to cope in society. These useless 'soft' skills might help with their hobbies and avocations, but they wouldn't help them get a job or do well in their career.

This presumes there was some golden age of education in which nearly everyone who tried, learned nearly everything that was important. There was no such golden age. I can think of no time in the past century in which one reform or another was under way in an attempt to reform the perceived inadequacies of the then-present education environment.

The economy has certainly shifted, in the US at least, from manufacturing to service, but I don't believe that service workers need to know any more or less than their manufacturing counterparts.

Nonetheless, I believe that both sides believe that a first-rate education (however defined) is paramount.

Today, the situation has completely turned around because of the six factors identified above. People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.

There is certainly a need for expertise and knowledge today. But, from what we know about the study of experts, one thing continues to be true -- experts know a lot of facts, otherwise known as domain knowledge. We value these experts because of their greater analytic ability (such as "literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting") and understanding of the domains in which they are experts. However, and this is the crucial bit, these same expertise have no greater analytic ability than the average Joe in areas in which they don't know the underlying facts.

By the way, did you notice that it didn't take many paragraphs of prose for Stephen to go from extolling the need for knowing facts, to belittling the need to know facts, to claiming that learning facts impairs the development of 21st Century learning.

That's the tell. And, that's the problem with all the advocates of "21st Century Learning" -- they say one thing, but they "tell" you another. Either they contradict themselves right in their own argument, as Stephen does, or they provide gloriously-fact-free "model lesson plans", like P21 does, that contradict their argument that "of course, learning both facts and skills is important."

So, while I believe Stephen when he writes that skills cannot be taught in the absence of facts, I also believe, based on his writings, that he thinks that facts should be marginalized as much as possible, taking a back-seat to the skills he thinks are important (based on current technology which apparently never goes obsolete). This has been a recurring theme in the 21st Century learning debate. One side is playing fast and loose with the rhetoric, keep getting called on it, deny it, continue using a slightly modified rhetoric, and wonder why the other side isn't taking them seriously.

And, that's a shame because we aren't getting anywhere fast in this debate. No progress is being made despite the apparent common middle ground that exists if you believe the rhetoric. The losers, of course, continue to be the school children.


Stephen Downes said...

Go back and reread the argument again, and see if you get it this time.

Begin by reading (and maybe even responding to) this bit, right near the beginning, which you completely ignore:

"I pose this question to the defenders of this 'base of knowledge', "why is a common core necessary for the teaching of skills, and why is testing of that core necessary." And specifically, "the question isn't whether skills can be taught in isolation, but rather whether they must be taught in the context of some common base of knowledge and whether students ought to be tested on the basis of that knowledge."

My argument is that there is no _particular_ set of facts that is needed (though I _allow_ that some set or another may be) and that the teaching of facts as _facts_ by direct instruction - because it becomes increasingly ineffective, and comes with an increasing cost to critical capacity - should be minimized.

It is unfortunate that you missed the point of it. Happily, from what I can gather from the responses, you are the only one who has.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, I don't need to reach those issues to maintain my disagreement with your premises. In fact, I could completely agree that we don't need a common core of knowledge or that direct instruction is less effective as the student's knowledge increases and my criticisms still remain valid. It could be that students should learn facts in science, history, geography, etc. without agreeing that a common core of knowledge is needed. As far as teaching according to direct instruction or not, I'm more concerned that the student actually learns rather than how he is taught. If the student is learning, I don't care how he is taught. Of course, you're well aware that I don't think that most novice students do learn as well with non-direct instruction, but that isn't germane to either of our arguments.

Dick Schutz said...

Well, your post proves its title, Ken. In my view Downes' piece doesn't start off well, and trying to do in his straw men is a bootless task.

We have Common Core taking issue with P21. Here's the CC quote that Stephen takes off from:

"Cognitive science teaches us that skills and knowledge are interdependent and that possessing a base of knowledge is necessary to the acquisition not only of more knowledge, but also of skills. Skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects."

The "knowledge" quoted is a "fact." Both folk science and cognitive science are in accord on that.

But that doesn't say much. It leaves open the questions of what "knowledge," what "skills" what "prior knowledge" how "wide an array of subjects is required.

Hirsch "answers" these questions by setting out a "common core" by grade that all kids are to have in their noggins (or wherever "knowledge" resides). This encyclopedic aspiration is anachronistic in the age of the Internet, when googling will tell you anything you want to know--if you know the rudiments of web searching.

The common things that should be "in kids' heads" warrants a lot more deliberation. But the time and feasibility of lodging it there are an important part of the deliberation. Hirsch isn't the boss of anyone. (The Feds are trying to get the states to do the bossing for them, but that's a whole nother story).

Bringing "direct instruction" into play further muddies the communication. "How to" reliably accomplish any educational aspiration is a legitimate question, and the most indirect instruction is direct. But if I understand you can your referent to direct instruction is DI as operationally defined by Becker, Engelmann, et al. That architecture is one legitimate way to go about it, but there are others. (Not a oodles of other ways, but some.)

There are many "arguments" going on in the thread, but they aren't being joined.

"It isn't getting us anywhere fast," but where the hell are you trying to go? If you said where, I missed it.

KDeRosa said...

Dick, education reform is a bootless task, where does one draw the line?

You've also struck on the same criticism that ENgelmann levels on Hirsch and I think it is a valid point, as I indicated in the comment above.

I was actually referring to direct instruction generally.

And the place I was referring to is, as usual, a metaphorical better education system.

Unknown said...

If you define learning as a change in long term memory and believe the cognitive scientists when they say working memory is very inefficient (limited in duration and capacity) in working with novel information, can't we move beyond the rhetoric and strawmen?

These inefficiencies and limits disappear when dealing with familiar information. Direct instruction has been repeatedly shown to be a highly effective technique to help put novel information into long term memory, especially in K - 12 where time is finite and demands are great. Most kids no longer get this at the family dinner table.

What do the P21 learning activities do to affect long term memory and working memory in the absence of known facts or facts sequenced to known facts?

How do you practice critical thinking and problem solving skills and other P21 skills without analogizing to known information?

To be truly effective, google relies on searching relevant terms. How do you know what's relevant without some preexisting content knowledge?

Dick Schutz said...

Well, to get beyond rhetoric and straw men we have to get into some "knowledge."

Learning is generally defined as "a change in behavior as a function of practice."

Memory is certainly involved. But there is a difference in "declarative memory"--the sort of things discussed as "facts" "knowledge" and "events" as contrasted with "episodic," "procedural" or "tacit" memory--matters like driving and other physical actions, routines that range from the simple to the complex.

Much is known about these matters but the work has been in developmental psychology (e.g. "The Development of Memory in Infancy and Childhood")

and in broader cognitive sciences
(e.g. "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Performance."

[Sorry, I can't get the links to amazon for these to activate. Google, if interested]

Effecting transparent operational improvement in the el-hi enterprise is more akin to "nation building" than to the "Reform by Slogan" and "Debate about Nostrums." that leaves the institution operating in it's somewhat dysfunctional but robust manner.

Richard Elmore has a thoughtful article along these lines: "Bridging the Gap Between Achievement and Standards"

KDeRosa said...

Dick's links:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Performance

The Development of Memory in Infancy and Childhood (Studies in Developmental Psychology)

This is the html you should use for links:

<a href="link">link name</a>

Unknown said...


I took my definition of learning from the Kirschner-Sweller-Clark 2006 article in Educational Psychologist as well as some of David C Geary's recent work.

If people having a good faith, informed discussion have 2 different views of what "learning" means, it's easier to see how the skills vs content discussion goes amiss even when intentions are good.

KDeRosa said...

forgot one

Bridging the Gap Between Achievement and Standards (PDF)

Dick Schutz said...

The definition of "learning" you used is not that far apart from the broader definition, Robin. It's just that there is more to learning and instruction than loading long term memory. Forgetting is as important as memory and memory is constantly being updated and reorganized by new information.

The "debates" are muddy because the debaters (present company excepted) often are promoting an ideological belief, and the language of education is largely metaphorical/rhetorical rather than operational/technical. People throw around terms like "higher order skills," "critical thinking" "21st century skills," and such without any means for reliably teaching them. (There are other variables involved, but we needn't go there.)

Thanks for activating the links, Ken, and for the "background info"/skill/knowledge on html that I obviously lacked.

Dick Schutz said...

Ken asks: "education reform is a bootless task, where does one draw the line?"

Just before the term, "reform." Use of the term is a "tell" that the person using it doesn't have the foggiest notion of the time, cost, or operations involved in delivering the "pie in the sky."

One of the things yagotta admire about Zig Engelmann's applications, is that he and his colleagues know the effect they are shooting for, and they monitor closely how well they are doing in getting there. (The instrumentation and methodology they use for monitoring the accomplishments of kids and teachers leaves a lot to be desired, but that's a whole nother story.

Few people do this. When one actually observes what is happening in the "reform" is that people are talking the talk, but they are walking in near-random walks.

Current federal initiatives are so misguided, that the "reformers" may have taken enough rope to hang the "movement."

I'm still optimistic that a "better education system" can and will be operationally effected. The faster we go nowhere, the better. Sooner or later, people will figure out that we aren't "gaining," that the "Race to the Top" isn't a race, and that there is no top. The sooner the better.

Robert Sperry said...

Facts & Skills is an incomplete set.

This is not all or even primarily what one needs to learn in either formal or informal education.

The primary is concepts. Maybe Conceptual frameworks if you want to abstract more.

As far as I can tell this is the point of DI. That's why they focus on vocabulary, because its a proxy for concepts. It is not to teach facts, facts are taught as instances so that one can get the pattern and form the concept.

If you are teaching the child the concept Red, the point of showing them a series of non-red and red things is not so that now have a bunch of Facts about the things you show them, its so they can form the concept red and apply it to every other red thing they see.

Steve is right in a lot of the details of his argument against facts. Yes you can use associative memory to teach kids the list of states and capitals. And this is totally useless except as a parlor trick. Yes some education is about that. Beat up on that all you want.

But this has nothing to do with learning facts like 2+2=4. Or the sound the letter s makes. These are facts that build into skills. Skills are an accumulation of related facts (not all or most of which have to be verbal).

Also the idea that one needs to read Hilbert be educated on 2+2=4 is hard to understand. Does this mean that no one before Hilbert or since who hasn't read him doesn't know 2+2=4?? 2+2=4 is understandable in the 2-6 range, I am pretty optimistic but even I don't expect my six year old to read Hilbert. We are still working through Euler and next is Gauss give the kid a break.

As for what skills one needs.. here is mine for young children (up to 7 or so):

Language (talking, conversation, humor etc)

Movement (Dance, Martial Art, Sport)
Drawing (pre-science)
Singing/Music Instrument

I don't see much reason to care about writing. Minimal typing is fine. I don't see how to teach science in any meaningful way at this age. Teach observation skills (drawing), teach math. Teach concepts. Tell stories about how things work. Same with social studies, include what you want in the stories you read them and they read. Seems like fiction is just as good a history here.

Tracy W said...

Stephen Downes, if you're still reading this discussion, is there any evidence that could convince you that a common core is necessary for the teaching of skills?
And is there any evidence that could convince you that skills must be taught in the context of some common base of knowledge.
And is there any evidence that could convince you, if you were convinced of the first two points, that students ought to be tested on the basis of that knowledge?