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Is factual knowledge relevant in the age of google?

Education- Preserving the good; Changing for the times-1 | Issue #21

Quote of the Week

“…Long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.” Paul A Kirschner, Educational Psychology Expert
 

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this.

In this week’s main post we talk about the importance of factual knowledge in learning and why facts ‘being a google search away’ is not sufficient for deeper understanding or thinking critically. This is the first post in a series titled ‘Education- Preserving the good; Changing for the times’. Through this series, we want to counter simplistic ideas about education that are prevalent and could be damaging to students, while highlighting changes that need to be made to keep up with the times.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club (ages 13-90), a community of interested students, parents, and educators. Check out this link for more about the club and how to join it. It is open to all in the current beta phase. 

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.

If you are the parent of a girl interested in STEM, do get her to attend the session on Sat, Aug 28 about the first Indian woman scientist to get a PhD in Physics. (Details in Upcoming Events)

Contents


Is factual knowledge relevant in the age of google?


Upcoming Courses @GenWise


Upcoming External Events

Is factual knowledge relevant in the age of google?

This post is part of a planned series, ‘Education- Preserving the good; Changing for the times’. Through this series, we want to counter simplistic ideas about education that are prevalent and could be damaging to students, while highlighting changes that need to be made to keep up with the times.

Are skills more important than facts?

You have probably come across articles like Why schools should teach the curriculum of the future, not the past– which imply that what is taught in schools is hopelessly outdated because the nature of jobs is constantly changing and that we should be teaching skills like problem solving and creative thinking, instead of facts. Here are some extracts from the article mentioned above-

“Yet, in most schools you visit in 2018, you see teachers teaching the exact same subject matter as they taught in 1918: reading, writing, math, science, history and foreign languages.

…..Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not taught in our schools.

…Some of the topics we teach today will no longer be essential in the 2030s: handwriting is increasingly obsolete, complex arithmetic is no longer done by hand, and the internet has replaced the need to memorize many basic facts.

Nobody would disagree that developing problem solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are important. However this article implies that what is currently taught in schools (reading, writing, math, science…) is not relevant and that factual knowledge is no longer relevant because of the internet. Unfortunately many educators and parents also believe this and that is dangerous.

We have seen courses teaching ‘critical thinking’, ‘maker skills’, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, ‘entrepreneurship’ etc. employing ‘project based learning’ and ‘research’ that result in superficial learning. Even worse, students end up believing that they have learned something substantial and it is not worth putting in effort to learn the core subjects taught in school. They may especially feel so about facts they can look up, or procedures for which they can use a calculator or computer. We regularly receive mentorship requests from students for writing research papers- which is great… because students should develop research skills. The problem though is that students pick topics that require years of background knowledge (blackholes, relativity, synthetic life, CRISPR…), instead of topics they can actually research. Perhaps being able to look up these topics on the internet, knowing some terms and faddish courses such as the ones mentioned above create an illusion of knowledge. Foundational knowledge has to be internalised by the learner (in his or her) memory; it cannot be replaced by the internet.

To clarify our position, we are not against teaching any of these skills/ domains or against project based learning; in fact these are the focus in many of our programs. Our point is that the development of these skills is dependent on foundational knowledge and skills. And foundational knowledge and skills take time and effort to build- you don’t end up learning AI or Synthetic Biology in one course in high school- it takes years of preparation to even start learning these topics.

Cognitive Psychologist, Dan Willingham, shares this experience from his observation of a classroom that highlights how the ‘skill of thinking critically’ about a rain forest is intimately connected with knowledge about it.

I once observed a teacher ask her fourth grade class what they thought it would be like to live in a rain forest. Although the students had spent a couple of days talking about rain forests, they didn’t have the background knowledge to give anything beyond rather shallow responses (such as ‘it would be rainy’). She asked the same question at the end of the unit, and the students’ answers were much richer. One student immediately said that she wouldn’t want to live there because the poor soil and constant shade would mean she would probably have to include meat in her diet and she was a vegetarian.

Facts about rainforests are available on the internet- but this does not mean that learners can think critically about rainforests just by reading up some articles on the web. In fact, what they search for will itself be influenced by their background knowledge. Looking at the situation described above, one can imagine the difference in what students might search for at the end of such a lesson vis-a-vis what they might search for before the lesson. The paper ‘You can always look it up…or can you?’ by E.D. Hirsch, American educator and literary critic, delves deeper into this.

In her book, Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou rejects the notion that skills are separate from knowledge and that knowledge is somehow less worthy and important. There is clear scientific evidence for how skills and knowledge are deeply intertwined. She quotes the below metaphor from E.D. Hirsch to make her point.

The relationship between knowledge and skills is like a scrambled egg. You cannot unscramble an egg, and you cannot unscramble knowledge and skills.

The Role of Long-term Memory in Learning

A widely accepted model of cognition (thinking) is as follows-

There are 2 parts to memory-


Working Memory– that can hold only a few bits of information at a time (maybe 7 at the most).


Long-term Memory- that can hold practically limitless information. However a certain amount of repetition and practice is required for things to be stored in long-term memory.

Whenever we think about something, we can only think about things that are in Working Memory. However, we can retrieve some facts from Long-term Memory into Working Memory when we want to think about something.

For example if we are to compute 46 X 7 mentally, we may do the following


6 X 7= 42


Put 2 down, carry 4


7 x 4= 28


Add 4 to 28 = 32


Remember you had put 2 down= 322

All these 5 things are happening within Working Memory. If we have learned the multiplication tables, it is not difficult to do this computation mentally as we can retrieve facts like point 1 and point 3 from Long-term Memory. However if we are asked to compute 78,921 X 35 mentally, most of us will fail at this, because of the limits on how much information can be stored in Working Memory, even though we understand multiplication conceptually. A student who has not committed the multiplication tables to Long-term Memory will struggle even with computing 46 X 7.

The point is not that we need to do these computations mentally, but that knowing the multiplication tables is a pre-requisite for learning many other things- number theory in Mathematics, estimating quantities, analysing data etc. It is simply not enough to learn multiplication conceptually.

Daisy Christodoulou summarises the importance of long-term memory elegantly by saying-

When we commit facts to long-term memory, they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition (i.e. Working Memory).

One reason we tend to think facts (memories) are not as important as skills is because we are not consciously aware of the several facts in our memory that make up our visible skills. David Didau explains it well in this post

Contrary to our intuitions, we have no memory of memorising much of what we know. Skills such as reading – or driving – actually consist of many thousands or particles of information that we at some point committed to memory. Few skilled readers, for instance, are aware of having memorised the 44 phonemes of the English language and the 170+ graphemes we use to represent them in writing. Yet had we not committed them to memory, reading would be impossible.

Learning Content Knowledge: what needs to change

More focus on connections and making meaning

A valid critique of the current/ past system of education is its focus on isolated facts. Being able to share Newton’s first law of motion or the date of the Battle of Panipat are clearly not useful. What is needed is to engage in deeper explorations of the implications of Newton’s first law, its application in different situations, how history affects the present and so on. In past editions of this newsletter, ‘Teaching Children to Connect the Dots’ and ‘Cooks Vs Chefs we have spoken about how this can be done.

One part of helping students make meaning can be done through focusing on ‘big understandings’. For example, not all students need to learn statistics in depth but every student needs to understand the problem with small or non-random samples.

Refine ‘what is to be learned’ in tune with the times

Some things are certainly more important to learn today than in the past- for example, making sense of the vast amounts of information and misinformation, understanding climate change etc. Such areas need to be included in the curriculum. Time can probably be made for such areas by dropping some existing topics. In ‘The Struggle with Math Learning’, we spoke about how every student may not need to do abstract algebra and instead time could be spent on getting comfortable with numbers and data.

We see these tweaks as incremental and don’t see these as replacing the current foundational subjects.

Reimagine ‘how things are learned’ leveraging available tools

Many technology tools are available today- like spreadsheets, geogebra, mind-mapping tools and simulation tools. These can drastically alter the ways of learning in some areas. For example, it makes a lot of sense for students to explore datasets on their own using spreadsheets from grade 7/8 onwards when learning about the basics of data analysis and statistics. This is unfortunately not common practice yet, at least in India.

It needs to be kept in mind though that the learner still needs to be guided properly to learn the subject; often the tool alone is not sufficient. We have spoken about this in Using Computer Simulations in Learning- 1.

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

Details of upcoming GenWise courses are available here. The next course coming up is by GenWise mentor, Dr. Bhooshan Shukla on addressing screen time and device addiction among children.

Upcoming External Events

All the below events are free to attend, though registration may be required.


Synthetic Biology- Join ‘Talk to a Scientist’ in their next episode in which scientists Dr. Karishma Kaushik and Snehal Kadam talk to scientists in IISc, Bangalore about questions such as-

-Can scientists design cells to make different products?

-Can scientists make a cell from scratch in a lab?

-What are the applications of synthetic biology?

Saturday, Aug 28 2021, 5-6 pm IST. For ages 6-16. Register here. (Free)


Dare to Dream: ”Life and works of Dr. Purnima Sinha” is presented by IEEE Kolkata Section & Women in Engineering (WIE) Kolkata Section at 7 PM IST, Saturday 28th August 2021. Dr. Purnima Sinha (1927- 2015), an Indian Physicist, was the first woman to be awarded with a doctorate in Physics by the University of Calcutta.

Dr. Sukanya Sinha, Physicist, and daughter of Dr. Purnima Sinha (and also a GenWise mentor) will speak on the life and works of Dr. Purnima. Here is the link to join the session.


How to Make a Home Lab (Chai and Why series targeted at children) on Sunday, Aug 29, 2021 at 11 AM from the cool TIFR outreach team. Zoom, YouTube & FBLive links available here. Here’s what the session blurb says-

CUBE – Collaboratively Understanding Biology Education – is a student-centered, open-ended, interactive, and collaborative platform to engage in asking questions in biology through simple and inexpensive experiments. When the lockdown was imposed last April, students working under the CUBE program lost access to their school and college labs. However, they quickly rose to the challenge and innovated what they today call the Home Labs. In this session we’ll catch up with students across the nation as they narrate stories of building labs at home using the most basic items available. We would also demonstrate how students have been bringing about improvements in their investigations, collaboratively and on a daily basis, by engaging in discussions online through ChatShaala. This program is brought to you by the CUBE undergraduate students in collaboration with Kishore Bharati and HBCSE.

Curious to learn more? Visit https://www.gnowledge.org/projects/cube.html. And join the home lab network across the country! Read more about the daily updates at https://metaStudio.org/c/cube/


Quantum Matters is a talk by award winning scientist, and professor of Physics at IISc, Bangalore, Dr. Arindam Ghosh. The talk is part of the series ‘Kaapi with Kuriosity’ by International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS). The talk is on Sunday, 29th August 2021 from 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm. For more details and to register, click here. Dr. Arindam describes the session as follows-“

“Quantum physics governs the world around us, from materials that we use to devices that we carry. But there is more than that meets the eye in the quantum regime, which prompted physicists to explore new technological frontiers with some of the ‘hidden’ properties of quantum mechanics. There is now a world-wide effort to make quantum computers, create internet that is built with quantum-enhanced security, and make sensors that have sensitivity that is fundamentally impossible to beat. These developments constitute the domain of ‘quantum technologies’. In this talk I shall provide a bird’s eye view of this rapidly expanding field of research and technology, which may revolutionize our day-to-day life in the years to come. The goal will be to review some of the basic principles of quantum physics that quantum technologies rely on, and also provide examples of how they are getting implemented in real devices.”

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