I often have a particular frustration when listening to politicians and pundits. The frustration is basically that pronouncements offer no opportunity for give and take. I cannot tell what the person really meant and I am more concerned with how the remark may be interpreted by others. There is a certain ambiguity in simplicity that can often validate wrong-headed positions. Pundits often over simplify.
I have been reading a new Kindle book by a popular blogger. This writer believes K-12 education should be reformed and technology should play a major role in the new version.
One of the specific concerns in this short book is the focus on fact learning and I think (but I am not certain) on the focus on fact learning in assessment. The authors contends that we should “Stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search.” This proclamation is followed by a specific example of a question from the New York regents exam that the author found particularly annoying. The question concerned “Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?” OK, I did not know either, but I have not studied history for some time.
Here is my concern. What specifically should educators conclude from such arguments?
a) Fact learning no longer serves a meaningful purpose and should not be emphasized in instruction?
b) Fact learning may serve a purpose, but skills that build on fact learning should be the focus of evaluation?
I do not know if the author took a clear position. There are too many issues here. There is the role of fact learning. There is the focus of student evaluation. There is the concern that the outcomes of student evaluations are leading to destructive behaviors regarding how students are taught and how teachers are evaluated. Where in this chain off concerns do we see the problem and which are legitimate concerns?
One should not leap to conclusions until the issue at stake is made clear. However, I feel the need to say:
1) Fact knowledge is essential. Clearly there is nothing wrong with searching for information when we lack factual or conceptual knowledge. Knowing how to answer our individual questions is extremely important and searching the Internet is a practical way to acquire information we lack. However, the value of search does not eliminate the value of existing knowledge to learning and understanding. I regard this position as “good science”. If you are interested, I would suggest the recent efforts of Daniel Willingham to dispute popularized claims that fact knowledge is not valuable (his book is great, but here is a quick summary).
2) Tests rely on sampling. It is impractical to evaluate every possible thing a learner might know or be able to do. items should be representative of the skills and knowledge we want students to have. I am not certain that one should read too much into a given item (such as the item regarding Gupta). We did not focus on India much years ago, but would your reaction to understanding the connection between a geological feature and the development of an empire have been different if the question had been “What role did the Cumberland Gap play in the expansion beyond the original colonies”?
Arguing that the focus of tests should extend beyond factual knowledge, that test preparation has received too much emphasis diminishing the time spend on instruction and learning, and that the results of examinations have been used to judge rather than inform instruction are positions I strongly endorse. These are policy issues. The relationship between existing knowledge and learning is not about policy, it is about how human cognition works.
If you want to google something try “existing knowledge and learning”.