Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trade-Offs Between Content and Understanding

Robert Pondiscio over at the Core Knowledge Blog seems to like this test from 1954 given in an 8th grade history or social studies or civics class (I'm not really sure which).  I'm less impressed.

Yes, the child does better than I could (without studying anyway) at listing random facts about our country: from every position in the cabinet to writing the preamble of the Declaration of Independence verbatim.  But so what?  To me, the test raised two questions:

1.) How much of what he wrote does the child understand?
2.) How much of what he wrote will he remember a day, a year, or a decade later?

Yes, content knowledge is absolutely necessary before we can teach understanding -- kids can't learn why the Declaration of Independence is important if they don't know what it is -- but learning lots of content with very little understanding is no better than learning very little content with lots of understanding.  Indeed, given the ease of accessing information nowadays, it might actually be worse.

If this test were given at the beginning of a longer unit on American government and history, it might be a somewhat useful exercise -- the teacher could make sure the kids know most of the basics about our country before moving on to explaining why these things matter.  But the test is dated May 7th -- so it seems unlikely that it's just a beginning of the year test of content knowledge designed to set the stage for deeper discussion of the topics later.  It's possible that this is actually the child's final exam.  If that's the case, this is an excellent example of how not to teach children.

Even if we're only training our kids for trivia competitions, tests based on rote memorization are almost useless.  For one thing, content without understanding is almost useless.  For another, people remember content better when they also know the context of that content. For example, which test question is better:

1.) What is the system of controlling water called?

2.) How did the invention of irrigation systems change Mesopotamia?

Both questions demand that students understand the same content -- that irrigation systems allow people to control the flow of water -- but the second puts that content knowledge in context.  Who cares if a kid can define the word "irrigation" if he has no idea why irrigation systems are important?  And, just as important, what are the odds the kid will remember that particular funny-sounding word a few weeks later if he's only asked to define it?

The test I've linked to almost exclusively asks questions like #1.  On not a single question is the student required to write a complete sentence or more explaining something.  And if we don't ask students to do that, they'll neither understand how the world works nor remember how their teacher said the world worked.

There are, of course, trade-offs between teaching mainly for content knowledge and teaching mainly for understanding.  Teaching for understanding is harder and slower.  You can't read every work of Shakespeare in one year if you take time to analyze what it means and discuss the historical content.  Which means that the more we focus on understanding the less time we have to make our kids memorize things like every position in the cabinet.  But teaching for understanding can ensure that kids know why the cabinet is important and what people in the cabinet do.  And if they can't remember every single member off the top of their head, they should be able to easily access that information -- assuming that was part of the curriculum as well.  And when one has a deep knowledge of less content, they'll remember a lot more of the content that they learned -- which might be more than the smattering of content that other students in other classes remember from the volumes of things they had to memorize.

The bottom line is this: content is an imperative, but understanding is more important.  And I have no qualms about saying that, because understanding implies content knowledge.

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