Internet Information Access Transforms Instruction

Back in the 1990s, when my principal job was instructional reform, I can say without a doubt that the biggest opposition I faced came from history teachers. I was trying to persuade teachers to focus instruction on getting students to use higher order thinking skills, to analyze data, to use information the same way a professional in that field would. When I made presentations on this topic, the strongest opposition usually came from history teachers, who insisted students could not do any of those things until they had memorized enough information to be able to do such analyses and projects. I vividly recall a teacher almost pounding a desk and repeating over and over, with increasing anger, how important it was for students to know the details of the Dred Scott case.

After that frustrating session, I went into several AP English classes, filled with brilliant students who had completed American History only a few months before, and I asked them who Dred Scott was. Not a single one knew. When I presented that information to the same history teachers the next day, they were absolutely unmoved. Learning history meant memorizing dates, events, and names, and that was all there was to it. The fact that students might forget it all a few weeks after the final exam was unimportant.

In the next decade, I was the curriculum director for a company that created online education materials. I found the same problem when hiring history course writers. Because I was now in charge, I could dictate the rules: our courses would focus on the instructional processes I could only argue for in the past. But it did little good. All the people we hired pledged to create their materials that way, but they simply could not do it without extensive retraining. I vividly recall one world history course writer whom I had to coax repeatedly to include thinking skills in her lessons, and I provided examples of the sort of thing I was looking for. Finally, she included a short answer question on an exam that asked students to write out key characteristics of a certain aspect of Phoenician culture they had learned in the course. She could not see how that was any different from the examples I had given her. She was unable to understand that writing out memorized facts in sentence form did not constitute higher order thinking.

With that background, I was shocked by a conversation I had last night with someone who is preparing to become a history teacher. He said there is virtually no assessment being done in any of his history classes that calls for pure fact retention. In fact, they now do almost nothing but various kinds of analysis. Thinking is king! He was excited about how interesting and worthwhile his classes are. What he described was nothing more than a revolution in comparison with what I experienced in the past, and I was suitably bowled over.

He believes it is all due to the ability to access information instantly via the Internet. Don’t know who Dred Scott was? A few seconds on the iPhone will take care of that. He believes that this is the driving reason for this reform, a reform that makes the classes much more enjoyable and much more useful. He also agrees that when you use information meaningfully, rather than memorize it for a test, you are more likely to remember it. Consequently — and quite ironically — the instant access to information, which negates the need to memorize, may actually aid in information retention. Thus, students who are no longer required to memorize the Dred Scott decision may actually remember it.

9 Responses

  1. Bravo, John!
    Your tale turns out well, even if we must count on increased life-expectancy to help us see progress become more widespread ;->
    I’d suggest along with incomparable access to information, it is application that makes it stick. This leads to “deeper order thinking” where we can bring together expanded understandings and meaningful actions, to improve life by using what we’ve learned. Thankfully you’ve been able to spread your vision in many venues, and it is great to see it take hold.

    • Thanks Ferdi, and welcome to the fold here! I had lost track of you over the last few years, and it is good to see your name on our pages.

      I think there is a staff development lesson here. I think doing what I tried to do as a part of my job years ago–try to convert teachers who were perfectly content with what they were doing–is futile. They will dig in at the heels and have their minds fixed on their next rebuttal instead of listening to what your reasoning. They have to first have that moment of cognitive dissonance when they realize for themselves that what they are doing is not working as they would like. Once they have that moment, they will seek out the solutions–but not before.

  2. John makes some excellent points, and I’d like to support and amplify a couple.

    In the first place, lack of thinking in history courses is a real crime. History provides some real opportunities for critical thinking, better than, say, French language. Yet, that’s the way most history courses have been for at least 50 years (my personal experience) and possibly 150.

    Then, there are those history teachers to whom John refers. They didn’t learn to think and so cannot understand what it’s all about. It’s like coaxing a completely color-blind person to paint more vivid colors on a canvas. It’s a crime that our schools have turned out “thinking-blind” graduates and more of a crime that any of them end up teaching and propagating that blindness.

    Finally, John makes the point that new technology has allowed some teachers in some courses to skip all of the memorization so prevalent for so long and concentrate on teaching students to think. It’s a wonderful positive note on which to end an essay, but what about those lingering thinking-blind teachers still in the system? What about their students? How can we flush the system of these “mind criminals?”

    I’ll add my own subject perspective, not wishing to suggest that science somehow escaped from this phenomenon. Just as many (most?) taught history as a sequence of names and dates, so many teach science as a set of vocabulary words, formulas, and procedures. This habit appears a bit harder to break than the history “names and dates” habit.

    As John indicates, the memory approach to these subjects results in very little long-term learning. His suggestion that understanding the Dred Scott case will more likely result in remembering its details is exactly on point. The teacher he indicted had it entirely backward. Don’t memorize tedious details and then attempt to paste them together into some sort of thought exercise. Understand the implications first. The facts will seep into your brain by a sort of thought osmosis. You might even become excited enough to push them in.

    So it is with science learning. Once a student grasps to some extent the nature of science, that student is much more likely to desire to explore science, to view it as much more than a dull repository of old information. Science, like history, is a process more than a collection of stuff.

    So, how do we convince today’s and tomorrow’s science teachers to teach science rather than a dusty collection of stuff? In my opinion, the only solution involves having these teachers also achieve an understanding of the nature of science. The only way to do that requires that they do science. “Be a scientist” must be their watch-phrase. If they don’t know how, then someone must provide the mechanism. Technology can do that inexpensively and efficiently.

    However, you can lead these teachers to the trough of learning, but can you get them to drink? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

    • Although we did not agree on all points, Harry and I were part of a project dealing with science instruction a few years ago, a project that was largely based on this problem, so I well know where he is coming from. His point of view is stated and supported in detail in the National Research Council’s book, America’s Lab Report. This work, which I highly recommend to all who would teach science, decries the typical instructional approach in America’s high schools, which is to have students memorize known scientific facts and principles.

      The book cites clear research indicating that in most cases, students will be far better prepared for typical final examinations if the school were to eliminate all time spent in labs, since lab projects merely takes up valuable time from the process of disseminating and memorizing information. Those who argue that labs provide the kind of thinking activity I described above have not seen what typical labs look like. They are cookbook activities in which students perform prescribed tasks for reasons they only vaguely understand and are rarely well connected to the instructional process.

      Of course, America’s Lab Report does not want labs eliminated. Rather, it calls for them to be transformed to thinking activities fully integrated into instruction. It further calls for instruction itself to be transformed into an inquiry process.

      Unfortunately, the report despairs of all hope that this will happen. It notes that future science teachers are not taught this approach in their teacher preparation classes in college, and once they are certified, they will never encounter any further educational process that will remedy that problem. Since they likely won’t be reading America’s Lab Report either, how will they ever learn to change?

      • That’s the rub.

        Here’s another anomaly. Everyone does science labs. Why? Because someone says so. Might be the state or the district or the school board.

        Everyone knows that science labs cost lots of time and money. Even if the lab materials themselves are obtained on the cheap, there’s plenty of money invested in the lab buildings, the internal facilities, and in extra insurance. Science teachers spend extra time preparing for labs and cleaning up after them. They spend more time planning, ordering materials, and making certain that instruments remain in good working order. It’s just not like teaching mathematics.

        After investing all of that time and money, what often happens? Some silly cookbook lab or verification lab is foisted on the students. Aside from escaping from lecture and from having to memorize even more words, formulas, and procedures, what do they gain? Nothing.

        If you absolutely must invest so much, you ought to get a benefit commensurate with that investment. Only if the lab time is spent in inquiry, exploration, discovery, explanation, and extension will that return on investment be reasonable. Even so, you cannot teach an entire curriculum with nothing but hands-on labs. They’re just too inefficient for learning content.

        On the other hand, classroom lectures, textbook reading, demonstrations, and video watching are very inefficient means to teach the nature of science and to develop scientific thinking skills.

        So, we should have both labs and the rest of the stuff that other courses use. The advent of computer technology has made new means for doing labs possible. Unfortunately, many have seized on the 20th-century technology of the animated simulation, which has its pedagogical uses, as a substitute for labs. As America’s Lab Report clearly states, the data for labs must originate in the “material world.” Furthermore, students should collect these data themselves and use their own judgment and care in so doing. Then, they’ll begin to understand science.

        Scientists constantly ask questions (like a 3-year old). These questions may come from reading or discussing or from previous data. The questions lead to ideas about how to gather data to answer them. The data gathered must be carefully analyzed. The question may or may not be answered. More questions may arise. it’s a truly creative process. Our children are being taught NOT to think and to believe that science is not a creative endeavor. Both of these outcomes have severe consequences for our future.

  3. Harry, good point re teachers.

    Ironically, “science” or what passes for “science” may be at the heart of the problem. In this scientific approach, educators attempt to operationally identify variables that represent learning as a linear process that progresses, in stages, from K-16.

    They then gather these variables in tests that are standardized over entire populations of students to determine rate of learning at different grade levels. Third graders ought to be able to do this and know that; tenth graders, this and that; and so on.

    Thinking, as a process, is taught, but it’s a kind of scripted thinking or problem solving that really boils down to memorizing step-by-step procedures. Thus, we’ve even turned thinking into a rote, formulaic process, e.g., if A, then do B and C.

    The thinking is that if we can turn learning into the memorization of a bunch of recipes for understanding the roots of the Civil War, solving quadratic equations, understanding the law of gravity, giving a speech, swinging a golf club, or writing a shortstory, then we have a way to measure teaching and and guide pedagogy.

    Every curriculum development effort that I’ve witnessed begins with defining measurable objectives, and the next step is, obviously, a test or survey to determine the extent to which the teacher or student has achieved those objectives.

    All very “scientific” and objective.

    The problem is that this approach seals the coffin on “real science” and “real thinking.” Instead of the genuine, we have the superficial, the fake, the stand-in, the standard.

    And we do all of this because it’s do-able. The other thing, “real” science and thinking, is harder to do — at least in the school system that we’ve created. -Jim S

    • I recall being appalled when my children came home with their mathematics homework and told me how they learned. Basically, it was “if you see this pattern, do that sequence.”

      Clearly, this sort of “thinking” is exactly what people who object to “teaching to the test” rail about. Students have no wiggle room, no space to be creative. Memorize this well and do well on your exams. Period.

      My son brought home a test with a very bad score from his mathematics teacher. He would get a C in the course and be very limited in his college choices. Such things have consequences.

      I reviewed every question on the exam. One question, with a very heavy weight, was done entirely correctly and with the correct answer but was marked zero. I went with the exam to the teacher and challenged that grade. First, she checked the grade book and determined that, indeed, the change of grade on the exam would change my son’s grade from a C to a B. (Otherwise, she could have dismissed me saying the issue was moot.)

      She took a look at my son’s answer and told me straight out that he had to show his work (he did) and that it was wrong (it wasn’t). I asked how it was wrong. She parried that it wasn’t done the way she taught them in class!! I said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his procedure. Being a PhD chemist, I had some confidence in my position. She finally acceded to “taking it under advisement.”

      I returned weekly to find out what her ruling would be (and whether I’d have to appeal to the principal with whom I had a good relationship due to my volunteer work at the school). It took several weeks for her to make that crucial change. I can only imagine what took so long.

      This long story strongly supports what’s being said here. It fits well with John’s stories. This teacher was a well-respected member of that high school’s faculty. Wow! It that’s a “good” teacher, we’re in lots of trouble. I really hope that John’s optimistic close comes true (or we’re sunk in more ways than one). I know that we’re both using our own individual skills as best we can to make it so.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Eric Grant, Jan Schwartz. Jan Schwartz said: This is true for more than the subject of history! […]

  5. Harry,

    My children hated when I made my regular trip to their classrooms over content I thought was either misguided or often just wrong. I once ended up teaching the 5th grade science class on Energy after complaining the curriculum was not just bad but wrong. I took my largest collection of toys to class and we used a chemicals to create heat that ran a steam engine to drive a generator that powered a light bulb that excited a solar cell that ran a small motor that released a mouse trap. They played with my geiger counter and we all learned about conversion and conservation of energy in different forms. Isn’t teaching and learning fun!


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