In Defense of Facts

It is easy to fall into false dichotomies: mind vs body, teacher vs administrator, Coke vs Pepsi (maybe not). One of the most prevalent false dichotomies in education is facts vs concepts, often meant to mean multiple choice test vs performance based assessment, rote memorization versus understanding, book learning versus real world learning. (an important side note that could be a whole discussion in and of itself is that these groups of dichotomies are not synonymous)  Painting these ideas as in opposition goes against how knowledge works in practice, the current understanding of the brain,  and is an impediment for people who want to reform schools.

How knowledge works: One of the loudest arguments against learning facts these days is “You can look up anything on the internet.” This statment has value when it is used to encourage teaching kids how to do good research and how to synthesize multiple sources into a cohesive understanding. When used to argue that facts themselves have no value and do not assist in the process of analysis, however, that argument is misleading.

Hypothetical situation: Pick 2 topics, one you know a lot about and one you know very little about. I will pick botany and accounting. Now you have to perform some research to answer a fairly complex question on each of these topics (Compare the different groups of gymnosperms and compare absorption costing to asset turnover) . You have 10 minutes for each question. Go.

I don’t have the aspects of the different gymnosperms memorized. However, I know what a gymnosperm is, I remember that there are different groups, and I understand the basics of plant structure so that when I read articles about the topic I can more easily filter the information.

I couldn’t even think of a question to ask in accounting, so I first had to search for a glossary of terms and then look around until I found two terms that seemed comparable (I don’t know if they are actually comparable). I don’t even know what I don’t know. As I try to learn more about accounting, I keep having to stop and look up basic ideas used in articles because I lack the background information. The words themselves seem to “stick less” in my head than the botany terms.

I am the same person, with the same research and synthesis skills, the same ability to pick up new ideas, and yet presented with a similar problem in two different factual areas I yield two different results. Why? Because facts matter. My prior knowledge about plants made it easier for me to understand new knowledge about plants. I had mental structures in place for categorizing information about plants, that were built when I was first asked to learn botany. I know how roots, stems, and leaves work ( I know that all plant structures can be classified as a root, stem or leaf), and so I can more easily compare the roots of the groups of gymnosperms because my brain groups that information together for me.

These mental structures are not helping me remember the things I read about accounting. I find myself wanting someone to explain the basics of accounting from an expert perspective so that I can frame my mind around ideas. Then I might be able to sift through all of the terms. I want someone to teach me the facts about accounting, so that I can approach the sea of information with some guidance.

Obviously facts matter or we wouldn’t have specialists. Specialists were not created merely due to the fact that only a few people had access to pieces of information. Specialists are still needed in an open information world, because information is really hard to understand without a lot of background.

Modern understanding of the brain? Well we don’t have a perfect understanding of memory, but we do know a few things that help break this dichotomy. There are no isolated facts in the brain. There are only connections. Your brain is a network of billions of neurons and every time you experience anything new, your brain changes those connections. That is learning. The more your brain is exposed to a certain language as a child the more the connections in the brain match the patterns of the language and the better the brain is at that language. When you are trying to learn specific details (your mother’s face, a phone number, the capital of France), your brain must change to emphasize a certain pathway and then be able to activate that pathway at some other time (recall). Your brain seems to store similar ideas together (apparently when you put an electrode in a brain and stimulate one area ideas of cars and predatory animals are activated) The more an idea is connected to other ideas in the brain (due to similarity) the easier it is to reactivate. This is why progressive educators are right in moving teaching towards contextualizing knowledge. No matter how hard you try to cram an idea into a person’s head as an isolated fact, the brain will store that idea as a connection to other ideas.

So, what we call facts are really just parts of concepts, and what we call concepts are just a bunch of facts. No fact can exist on its own in the brain, and no concept can exist on its own in the brain independent of the specific facts that gave rise to the concept.

OK, so hopefully you are willing to consider that facts and concepts aren’t antithetical, and maybe content knowledge is useful, but why is the dichotomy bad for reform? If we put the choice to administrators, teachers, and the public: the children will learn EITHER facts or concepts, facts will win. We shouldn’t be saying that the only way to teach a fact is to be as boring as a test. Teach the children the content through engaging problem based activities that activate their brains and allows them to create multiple connections. If you give the kid only one connection to an idea and isolate from the world because it is a hated fact, then the kid won’t learn that fact. We should teach facts the same way we teach concepts, because they are no different.

Teaching Example: The parts of the cell are a collection of facts that are often on the standardized tests. I have used some form of the following lessons at some time in my time as a teacher.

Bad Lesson: Give the kids a sheet with the list of cell parts and definitions and tell them they need to learn them.

OK Lesson: Have kids make flashcards for each cell part by looking up the definition and spend 10 minutes a day quizzing themselves and others on the definition of the cell part.

Good Lesson: Have the kids make a poster of the cell parts with the definitions, pictures, examples of the cell part doing its job, and a metaphor for each cell part (as a factory or town)

Great Lesson: Have the kids debate which cell part is the best. Each group defends two cell parts in a single elimination tournament. Each side presents an opening statement with facts about what the cell part does and why that is important to life (and the audience). Then there is a cross examination/rebuttal period for the two teams to interact. The winner is decided by secret ballot (the teacher gets extra votes) and moves on until a “Most Important Cell Part” is crowned (during the debate students realize that every part is important for life and the parts of the cell are interconnected).

Theoretically  Awesome Lessons (never actually tried these): What about having students contact researchers who spend their whole lives studying one cell part to reveal how a single vocab word has a huge existence in the real world? What about a game/simulation where the students manage a cell to reveal the dynamic nature of these parts?

In all of these lessons, the students are learning factual content that will help them perform well on multiple choice tests. However the more the students connect those facts to other ideas (the metaphors, the social memory of the debate) the better they will learn. Also the standardized test is a pretty good measure of how well the students learned about cell parts and how engaging the class was.

Rambling Post about Homework Inspired by #edchat of 8/25

I think the real crime in education is that we don’t give our poor and underprivileged students enough work/pressure. In the current culture, we encourage students to follow only their interests and to only do what they are good at. Hard work and struggle are believed to be cruel and unnecessary in the growth of a modern American. That might be fine for a well supported middle class family. The summer time drop in achievement is well documented. It appears that middle class children improve in reading over the summer and poor children slide back. The current explanation is that middle class children are more likely to be encouraged to read independently while poor children are not. Nobody is encouraged to practice math/science over the summer and those scores drop for everybody. Therefore I can see middle class parents complaining about school and HW in general. They are already fostering an academic mindset in their children (at least in reading) and don’t like school jumping in. However, poor children need more structure and more work from school, not less. I would argue that middle class children could also use more schooling/HW, but it might need to be more flexible. (In general high performing students prefer more structure, but learn more in open ended environments while low performing students prefer less structure, but learn more in very directed environments)

Many American parents seem to feel that school removes essential qualities from their children. I feel that there is some conflation with the necessary changes that occur as children grow up (they realize they aren’t the best at everything, aren’t the center of the world, they have to delay gratification, they have to compromise with others) and the changes that occur due to academic learning. A parent in the #edchat of 8/25/09 mentioned that school caused her child to stop writing. The parent mentioned that the decrease in writing was caused by the lack of time (due to HW) and the teaching of writing in a boring and stilted way. However, maybe this was necessary writing instruction. Many children love to write, but they don’t have the ability to write for different audiences/purposes. Their writing often lacks major structural/organizational elements. As a child learns how to write well, then the free form writing of his/her past can seem childish/pointless.

For example, I used to write a lot of poetry in high school. I stopped not because of school, but because my poetry wasn’t that good, totally personal, and didn’t have an audience. Society doesn’t need me (ie the majority of people) to write poetry. It needs me (the majority of people) to write reports and clear communication (boring and stilted I know). Should our schools be preparing creative, free thinkers or competent workers? I would say its first duty is to provide the necessary skills for children who have no other chance.

If we shift too far towards freedom and creativity in education, ie we entice poor readers/writers to engage in poetry/journaling, will they be able to transfer those skills to become good at the functional office literacy that will actually have a chance of improving their lives? (Sure poetry can improve your life, but it does offer very few career opportunities)

88% of Chinese parents give their elementary age children MORE homework than assigned (drops to 50% for secondary school).  Obviously Chinese society puts a lot of pressure to succeed and there are downsides to this. However it does seem that Asian Americans (even poor immigrant Asian Americans) do a lot better in school than other cultural groups in the US. I think the argument against homework is really just an argument against modern public schools primary goal: to ensure basic level skills for all students in a structured environment. The sad truth is that our schools fail at that goal. Should we really ask teachers and schools to also try to meet the needs of creative, independent learners? Can we teach basic skills in an open/free way? My final argument for HW qua HW is that currently the only constant in education is time (a child is in school for X hours), but learning is variable and not guaranteed. Homework is the hope that the constant will be learning (a child will learn X) and will put in the time necessary to achieve that. I agree that HW (and much of school) can be improved. Maybe give more independent “pre-work” for HW and make class a time for questioning and clarification. Students that can learn by reading the textbook, work on a debate during class. Students that didn’t get the concept via homework, receive more direct instruction from the teacher.

What do kids use Moodle for?

I surveyed students after our first full year of Moodle use to see what they thought about Moodle. I distilled student comments and found certain words and themes that came up often. I called these keywords. Check out the graph below for a snapshot of the results.

Obviously a lot of what they use Moodle for has to do with what their teachers set up: primarily to access handouts and schedules. However, middle school students also used the Moodle messaging and tag feature to create an online community.

Several cool things about the spontatneous online community:

  1. We could monitor it fairly well (sadly some aspects of the popular tag pages are not logged and so we have had to restrict that feature)
  2. The kids got in the habit of going to our Moodle at night (usually just to hang out, but they were that much closer to getting information)
  3. It was spontaneous. This reveals how much untapped potential there is in creating online learning spaces for students. If educators can embrace social media and help craft positive online spaces for kids, we might see online behavior improve. Also we can harness their desire to interact online and try to push them into creating and learning educational content.

A few representative quotes:

  • I use it for printouts of schedules, PowerPoint lectures, class notes. It helps a lot with absences.
  • One night before a history test, I went on my school and found a power point that helped me study for the test. I have also logged on and gotten the homework for language arts so I knew what was coming up the next week. It really prepared me for the next week.
  • The best benefits/features of my school are that you get to chat with friends and see school assignments
  • I used it to transfer information to my partner through instant chat.
How do students use Moodle.

How do students use Moodle.

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We are going to try adding the OU blog plugin so that students can create and COMMENT on blogs. Also we hope to add the shoutbox plugin so we can create a twitter-like community on our Moodle as well.

It will be interesting to see if students will stay active on Moodle socially as they age and start becoming more active on “real” social networks. In general, our high school students weren’t hanging out on our Moodle. I wonder if tools like Ning or Elgg would be a better fit for high school students.

So You Want To Moodle?

What does a school have to think about as it adopts Moodle? We are finishing our first year of Moodle use at Carmel Middle School and Carmel High School and I will share some of our findings on this blog. We are using Moodle for teacher web pages but use another system for online grades.

History and Setup: We piloted Moodle on our own server for one year. The teachers who set up Moodle pages liked the system and so we adopted it as the official platform for class websites. As part of our official adoption the district paid for Remote-Learner.net to host our Moodle and provide support. This really helps with peace of mind and has been a very positive relationship. All student were given accounts created with a file upload. Teachers could request courses to be set up, but students are not automatically enrolled. All courses allow guest access, so that students and parents could just use guest access to download files.

We ran several all day trainings in the summer to get teachers up to speed and occasional trainings during the school year.

The most important lessons so far:

  • Creating a website takes time. If you want teachers to create pages, give them the time to do so by making it a professional development priority.
  • Most teachers will start with Web 1.0 features. They will use Moodle as an online file storage center, not an interactive virtual learning environment. That is OK and as the level of comfort with Moodle grows, teachers can start to explore interactive elements. Also Web 1.0 features are really useful for student absences and lost handouts.
  • The students will want to socialize online. We have messaging turned on and our middle school students love to hang out on our Moodle at night. This means they are chatting in a safe, monitored environment (Moodle logs, only students and teachers have accounts). It also means that students are familiar with the page and so are more aware of the resources teachers provide than if the site wasn’t social.
  • Many teachers will need to see real benefits before they jump on the bandwagon. Don’t worry about pushing too hard on the reticent teachers at first. Support and encourage the power users and the benefits will speak for themselves.
  • The more teachers that use it, the better. One of the advantages of Moodle is that it is a one stop shop for school. If some teachers use their own system, that fragments your online school community.

To close my first post about our Moodle, I would like to share the result from one of the questions from a student survey about Moodle. The students really love having a place to interact online and access to classroom materials. Check out our site.How can Moodle be improved?