Friday, July 24, 2009

Lifetime Learning?

One thing I often wonder about is the value of learning things that you're not going to remember. I'd have to guess that I've forgotten at least 90% of what I've learned in my time in school. As far as I can tell, one can interpret this two different ways:

1.) Everybody needs different skills and knowledge bases later in life, so we should teach everybody everything and they can use what they need

2.) Our teaching has largely failed, there's little reason to learn something that will be forgotten later anyway. If most of what is taught is later forgotten, then it needs to be taught better the first time.

I guess I'd land somewhere between these two schools of thought. On the one hand, we shouldn't narrow the curriculum so much that everything will be remembered by every student because everybody will miss out on a lot. On the other hand, I would know a lot more today if there was a little less breadth and a little more depth (and later reinforcement) in my education. One book that I read claimed that a valid final exam for a class is one that's given a year after it's taught. I'm not sure I disagree.

What jogged my mind about this? This cartoon I saw yesterday:


RDT said...

I don't necessarily think that learning stuff you later forget is pointless. I think kids learn a lot of thing that help them build a "structure" of understanding of the world, and that often the structure remains, even after then individual facts have been lost.

I remember very few detailed facts from high school biology -- most those insect body part names are long gone -- but I have a basic understanding of how plants and animals work.

Similarly, I've forgotten many dates and names from my history classes, but the general timeline of American and European history is still there.

Maybe I could have gained the same broad-brush understanding without the all facts that went into learning it in high school. But I'm not sure.

Dustin Cornelius said...

I don't remember most of my high school education. I was overworked and had little sleep. Do I think it was a waste of time? For the most part, no.

I think it is important to expose young minds to a broad array of information, because we don't know what the student will end up being when they grow up. More importantly, the student may not even know what he will end up doing when he grows up until he has been exposed to something new and unexpected.

Brian Rude said...

A few thoughts:

A lot of what we learn is "supporting structure". It supports the "framework structure". When we hear of people who can't place the Civil War and the Revolutionary War in the right centuries we are likely seeing the results of a lack of supporting structure. They probably did learn the basic facts in school. How could you avoid them? That's framework structure. But they probably did not learn much supporting structure, a mass of facts, concepts, and connections that support those basic facts. Without supporting structure the basic facts are held in their minds only by memorization. They are easily forgotten. But those who learn a whole lot more than the basic facts are not dependent on memorization. The basic facts are held in place in their minds by that network of facts, concepts, and connections around those basic facts. Memory still plays a part in retaining those facts, but it is not the whole story.

One consequence of this is what I call the "four year rule". You have to study a subject about four years ahead of what you want to remember. If you study math through high school you will retain a working knowledge of elementary school math. Most of the high school math will slip away. If you want to remember your high school math, study math in college. But if you decide that eighth grade math is enough and stop there, you'll go through life with not much more than a fourth grade knowledge of math. That's a very rough rule, of course. Many things can change it. If you use knowledge everyday you won't lose any of it. And you can lose a lot more than four years of knowledge. I've known people for whom eight years of piano lessons seems to have shrunk to a vague recollection that middle C is in the middle of the piano keyboard. But I think it's a very important rule. If you don't go considerably beyond what you need to remember, you won't remember it.

And then there is the "opening doors" idea. By learning something about a subject you are opening a door to that subject. You may or may not choose to ever go through that door, but the point is you can. If you don't open the door, you can't. Music again is a very good example of that. A tiny percentage of students who start band in the fourth or fifth grade will become accomplished musicians. But that is not failure. Failure would be not opening the door to music for them at all.

And then there is the perspective argument. I think it is a very important argument, though I'm not sure I can explain it very well. The argument is that if you study a subject you can forget a lot of the facts without losing the perspective. I think part of this idea is concerned with mental habits (another very important idea, in my humble opinion). Mental habits are like knowing how to ride a bicycle. You can't forget, but you can't verbalize it. You can learn a lot of science, forget it all, and scoff at copper bracelets and horoscopes. Or you can never learn science, and fall like a rock for copper bracelets and horoscopes.

So I am not one to jump to the conclusion that any bit of knowledge is wasted if it is not used or not even remembered. However I do very much relate to your comment about "little less breadth and a little more depth". A bit of knowledge may not be wasted if it's forgotten or never used, but it may be much worse than wasted if it crowds out other bits of knowledge that would be more valuable. In my present teaching situation, college freshman math, we have guidelines for every course, a list of topics we are supposed to cover. I generally manage to pack everything into a semester, but it is a struggle. I think we would do better to do less. Students scramble to keep up and cram for tests. I doubt if they get much lasting value from their cramming.

Learning some things well is important. Learning more things than can possibly be remembered is important. Finding the right balance is not easy.

Roger Sweeny said...

One book that I read claimed that a valid final exam for a class is one that's given a year after it's taught.

You wouldn't happen to remember the title and author, would you?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

RS: I think it was "The Passionate Teacher" by Fried

Roger Sweeny said...

The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide (2nd Edition) by Robert L. Fried.


Roger Sweeny said...

from the first edition (Beacon Press, Boston, 1995):

In fact, the traditional approach to “covering the curriculum” has little or no data to support it: we rarely re-test kids a year later to find out how much of the covered information they have retained. I often ask teachers, “If the school board decreed that the final exam for any course had to be given a year after the course was completed, would that change how you teach?" The answer I get (after a guffaw or two that signifies the total absurdity of such a proposition) is that their entire pedagogy would have to be reinvented, since it is now based on conveying information to students that they are likely to soon forget. As one veteran teacher put it: “Re-test them in a year!? It’s all gone in three weeks!” p. 61

Fried suggests, as an experiment, redoing a unit using an outline:
C. Desired Results for Concepts and Skills: What you expect students to remember about this unit and be able to apply a year from now, when they’ve forgotten most of the details: p. 73

which he amplifies on p. 75
C. Desired Results for Concepts and Skills. Here’s where your challenges really begin, and you start to exercise a passionate discretion over content. You must distinguish what is truly essential from other, less useful, stuff. Ask yourself what it is that you expect your students to remember about this unit and be able to apply elsewhere a year from now, after they have forgotten most of the details. What do you want to stick with them?

Roger Sweeny said...

Fried returns to the idea near the end:

The unit of instruction called the course is under attack these days for its failure to deliver the goods--the fact that “taking” or “passing” a course offers no proof that one has gained much of lasting value. What might be the result if high-school teachers were to give a new final exam to former students who got an A or B on that same exam a year ago, to see what the students had retained? I recently heard a speaker dare his audience of teachers and principals to sit down and take, under identical conditions, the very exams in math, science, and social studies now given to eleventh graders in their school systems to see how much of what they themselves received in high school and college they still retain as professional educators. The implication of these challenges is that what we teach in a traditional course may have little staying power, and how we measure learning may be a poor predictor of future academic success. p. 230