I don’t have a good title for this post but I bet Google does (?)

A quick thanks to everyone who’s tweeted about the guest posts from a techie patron (part 1, part 2), and welcome to anyone joining us from Twitter! You would make my day if you subscribed (RSS above right) or commented. Today, though, we take a break from the woes of web design and shoes, reach into my teaching background, and talk about learning…

Thank goodness: an article which critiques the notion that learning facts is no longer important because you can just look things up on the internet.

I have a special bias on this question: I am a former Latin teacher, and languages are perhaps the single subject resting most on memorization these days. (In fact, one of my major tasks in Latin I each year was to teach memorization skills to students who had generally not, up to then, had a reason to acquire them.) You can, yes, look up the endings to the five declensions every time you encounter a noun; but if you haven’t — not merely memorized — but internalized them, to the point where you instantly recognize the ending, grasp its potential syntactic roles, and connect those to semantics — you will lose the forest for the trees. You will have no hope of ever reading the sentence, much less its paragraph; it will be a set of disconnected facts of grammar, too many to hold in your head for the purpose of drawing connections.

(Those of you who took, say, at least three, four middle-school years of Latin, or equivalent, will recognize how desperately that final clause wished to be gerundive — but only, of course, if you have fully automatized the concept of “gerundive”. Those of you who have to look it up will probably not understand what I am talking about, even after you look at the definition. Of course, had I not written this parenthesis, you would’ve have known it was there to be looked up at all…)

The notion that we don’t need to learn facts because we can look them up betrays — I think — paradoxically — the belief that education is nothing but the knowledge of unconnected facts. It treats possession of these facts as the beginning, and end, of learning. I think, rather, that the possession of facts is a prequel to synthesis. I have heard the “no point in teaching facts we can look up” crowd go on to say we are thereby liberated to spend our time on higher-level thinking skills, but I have never been clear on how these skills can be taught in the absence of content.

(They are, of course, right that the particular content may be both unimportant and ephemeral toward this end, but the content must, nonetheless, be there. And as long as it is there, why not make it content that can be synthesized with other parts of an education? Why not make it mean something? I was, for instance, always disappointed that the Latin textbook I taught from gave, as Latin reading passages, made-up stories of made-up people, rather than myth or history, which could have been teaching two things for the price of one…)

12 thoughts on “I don’t have a good title for this post but I bet Google does (?)

  1. This is precisely how I feel. In math and sciences, it’s one thing to know you can look up whatever formula you might need, but if you lack the structure to even know where the need is, you’re just going to be lost. Even in History, which is what my wife teaches, if you can’t understand the themes (because you aren’t cognizant of the existence of any of the facts), everything just seems as a disconnected series of events with no meaning to the modern person.

    What this might mean is that we still need theorem / facts / events based curricula, but more emphasis on the structure underlying whatever subject you’re teaching. And some way to develop tests that evaluate the understanding of the structure. Oh, and my wife would say that we also need critical thinking skills, because the web is full of bullshit.


  2. Let me take the devil’s advocate position here.

    As a coder, the number one thing I google and bookmark are programming language specifications, semantics, standards, libraries, and so forth. These comprise an absolutely vast body of information that it simply makes no sense for me to memorize. I work in four different programming languages in a typical workday; each exposes a standard library of a few hundred pages at least. By looking things up every time, I let my brain slowly memorize the small subset of that information that I need most often, without my ever having to consciously determine what that subset is.

    I think that this is a productive way to think about the memorization problem. In most of the problems of life we do not know in advance what we will need to know, or to what contexts we will need those memories to relate, or in which aspects of those things we will need greater or lesser focus in our recollections.

    The problem with this memorization-through-use approach is that it requires actual uses that seem important to us — something that grade school is famously bad at providing. But the skill of coming-to-know without knowing-in-advance is the really valuable thing — it is, moreover, how we actually learned most of the things we care about.

    Being terrible at flashcard memorization, I learned the declensions through sight-translation and the great events of history through trying to compose meaningful arguments about them. This worked because I cared about those tasks; I suspect that that caring is the sine qua non of actually successful learning through use.


    1. I think I see the everything-can-be-looked-up argument disproportionately from a techie crowd; I think in part this is because they’re overrepresented on the internet (for obvious reasons ;), and in part because the nature of your field really lends itself to that — you have little to no canon knowledge, and the must-have knowledge changes yearly or even hourly. I submit this does not generalize to all, or even many, fields, though.

      I also think you are looking at the wrong level of abstraction here. Sure, you look up lots of programming-language details. But it would be meaningless for you to look them up had you not already absorbed a significant body of knowledge concerning the concepts of programming (knowledge that you probably absorbed through a close working knowledge of the details of at least a few programming languages…) The idea that some facts need to be looked up is hardly an argument against having, well, some fact-based education.

      I do strongly agree that school contexts don’t necessarily provide the use cases that motivate memorizing, and that school can likely provide most people more value by providing frameworks for learning as needed in the future, rather than specific fact corpora. I suspect the particular facts learned in school are, with a handful of core exceptions, not actually all that important (and thus, for instance, countering the “memorizing facts is unimportant” argument with a “here is the canon of Western culture everyone should know” argument is equally daft). ButI don’t think the scaffold can be provided without some deep investigation of actual, thoroughly known (even if later forgotten), facts.


  3. Grant’s devil’s-advocate perspective is true enough, for certain kinds of knowledge tasks. That’s certainly how I deal with most detailed programming task knowledge myself: “Hmm, I can’t remember how to configure a flurble widget in language woozie; ah, but I can just google “flurble widget woozie” and there’s the answer.”

    But that’s entirely different from how I deal with most knowledge tasks as a scientist! There, what is required is most often accessing a large and nebulous body of knowledge in order to analyze some given situation. Synthesis, as Andromeda suggested. Yes, of course I often conduct searches as part of this, and facts or references often consulted generally do make their way more firmly into my memory. But “coming-to-know without knowing-in-advance” on its own is an inadequate approach to such a challenge. A foundation of already-known knowledge is crucial for allowing me to assess tasks and decide strategies, and the core of that already-known knowledge is often material I learned formally in some classroom.

    A metaphor for this that I am fond of comes from the ‘Experts vs. Novices’ chapter in _How People Learn_, a report of the National Academy of Sciences I highly recommend (free online!). Novices in a given field tend to think of knowledge as a flat landscape, a series of facts for the most part disconnected and disorganized . Experts, on the other hand, tend to conceive of the same body of knowledge as a rich geography organized around key landmarks and central principles. (Conservation of energy, say. Stellar nucleosynthesis. Natural selection. Computational complexity. Functional programming. Conjugation and declension…). These principles act to organize and unify the mental landscape – and while they are high-level concepts, they can only really be built upon a solid foundation of known facts.

    If your *goal* is for a learner to develop such a mental framework, a certain amount of memorization of facts is generally required. Said another way, coming-to-know broad principles requires knowing-in-advance specific facts.


  4. And I make a good part of your point for you, having taken 4 years of Latin but never having been required to give up my reliance on glossary and grammar reference, and my now-rusty-anyway skills are limited enough that your reference to the gerundive awakens only vague flutterings of memory, as of a bird trapped in a distant cage of necessary work left undone. I find myself wishing for a time machine at the oddest moments….

    Attempting to get my kids to memorize their math facts is straining at the limits of my willingness to force things on them for their own good (although now that summer is here, maybe I can concoct some memorization game that involves running around outside); I’m about ready to hand D a multiplication table to look things up on and let her internalize them through repeated use. There are certainly some areas, such as foreign language, where conscious attempts at memorization can make all the difference in the world (and it is my suspicion that math facts are also in this category that makes me want my kids to memorize them). But, truth be told, I’ve never yet made any conscious attempt to remember that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066; I’ve just read a lot of history, and it’s been mentioned a lot. (In fact, its citation in “Why do I need to know this!!!” diatribes probably accounts for a good deal of my exposure to, and consequent memorization of, this fact.)

    And so, I think, we come to one of the major misunderstandings regarding memorization. “Memorization” implies to many people the reduction of a potentially interesting subject to a list of dry facts to be reviewed over and over until all romance and interest that might possibly have been there has been thoroughly beaten out of the subject, all in the name of somehow getting that all-important date-plus-event-description to stick in the brain. But it doesn’t have to be that way! You can start with a list of dry facts, such as vocabulary words and their conjugations or declensions, and commit them to memory so that you can tell/read stories of ever increasing complexity. From the opposite direction, you can start with important stories from history, and tell them in ways that capture the attention, that encourage drawing connections, and mention those much-maligned important dates, and before you know it, you’ll have a wealth of knowledge in your head and it’ll connect into a framework all the more readily for having come from a work of literature that made the facts and their context interesting and compelling. If conscious effort at memorizing facts is needed in addition to the stories, it then becomes a recitation of reminders of good stories, and who can complain about that?

    In the final analysis, I couldn’t care less whether my kids remember the precise year in which the Battle of Hastings occurred. But I sure want them to know that it happened, that it changed the future of the world, and that it did so between 1000 and 1100AD, which puts it into roughly the same time frame as the schism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches (and probably in the same time frame as some interesting events in China and Africa, but having never learned those histories in school, I can’t make those connections just yet). And while they’re learning all that, I might as well mention that yes, it took place in 1066, because when you can give a precise date, why not do so? Mention enough precise dates, and hopefully enough of them will stick that a framework of interrelated events will start to form in their heads.

    I also am remembering my one major memory fail in elementary school, the one time I actually failed a test for not knowing the material being tested. It was on the Spanish explorers, and all the questions on the test were about which explorer found what and who came first — basic memorization stuff. I, being bad with names and never having been previously asked to regurgitate facts I couldn’t remember from one reading of the text book, failed this test rather dramatically. At the time, I thought it unfair; why did I need to know which explorer found what? Now, reflecting on that unit in 5th grade history, I am forced to conclude that in fact, my ignorance of the basic who-found-what-when facts reflected a genuine failure to grasp the overall picture of the time period; my understanding of the Spanish explorers can be pretty thoroughly captured by: “Some Spanish guys sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and found parts of America, killing largish numbers of natives in the process (some more intentionally than others).” One can argue that this lack of understanding reflects a lack of good story-telling on the part of my textbook and my teacher, and one might be right in this — but forcing myself to memorize those “boring, dry facts” might have allowed me a more thorough vision of the overall story than I got without it. Maybe I’ll get it in a few years when I go through that time period with my kids. (Homeschooling as time machine substitute — hah!)



    1. For memorization skills: I found I was utter rubbish at teaching them to my students. Partly this was because (as I tried not to let on to them too much…) I actually never did set out to memorize declensional endings; I just sorta knew them. But largely this was because they were simply much better at teaching them to each other. A class of, say, 15 seventh-graders will employ at least 3-5 memorization strategies that work quite well (at least for the people in question) and several more that work poorly; having them share with each other what they do not only gives them more options than I could provide, but means they are learning them through a channel (their peers) that resonates better with them anyway. (I am not sure how you can apply this knowledge in your situation.)

      I agree, of course, that memorization alone is lame (and even often pointless); it’s the interplay between facts and conceptual scaffolding that makes the facts worth knowing, and that interplay can go in both directions. (Which means, of course, that your kids might find themselves more motivated to learn the math facts as they do higher-order problems which rest on fast access to the basics. Of course, they might equally well find themselves stymied because it takes too long between steps, and not understand why. But at least either way you have motivation potential to work with.)

      History…I had zero interest in history before my junior year in college, in large part because K-12 history textbooks are so often devoid of storytelling. That said I don’t think it was your iffy study skills to blame in the 5th grade case, rather than your textbook’s or teacher’s apparent lack of the factual/conceptual interplay. I imagine there would have been less need to force yourself had there been a story to hang things off of. (See also: for all that some of my students may have struggled with declensional endings, they never had any problem remembering Horatio at the bridge, or the mind-boggling quantities of incest among the Ptolemies…)


  5. There are, I think, two separate arguments being made here, and I find the first (which Marshall makes glancingly) to be the most interesting.

    1 — the argument about why we need facts) To discover something new — to see an underlying pattern that no one else has seen — you cannot rely on Wikipedia; you must have enough knowledge about related ideas to put it together yourself, or you will not know what to look up. For example, to make sense of current events, I need to have a good knowledge of almost-current events or the context will not be sufficient for me. The same applies to realizations about a historical period, a new scientific or mathematical discovery, judging the truthfulness of a politician, etc.

    2 — the argument about how knowing facts lets us learn) To learn, we must have a sense of the landscape around what we are trying to learn. Thus, education will be improved if students have a cogent body of facts that surround the non-fact-based skills they are trying to learn. (Or, in fact, that surround other facts they are trying to learn.)

    Both arguments are important and useful: one is about why facts are important later, the other is about why facts are important as part of learning.

    Incidentally, there are tons of discussions going on about this across the education landscape. There are articles galore in Education Week and other publications; I’m pretty sure this comes up prominently in Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” (which I am about to read); there are organizations that advocate for learning traditional facts broadly (http://www.commoncore.org/) and in math specifically (http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com). I’m not in agreement with everything all these folks say, but it’s worth noting that the discussion is very much out there!


    1. Yum, links!

      I have a dim awareness that the discussion is out there in education circles, but not much sense of who’s on which sides.

      Nice nuance there, with the now- vs. future-importance thing. Both resonate with me, although as far as curriculum design is concerned #2 resonates more; I think a lot of the arguments against the importance of facts are actually arguments against #1 (e.g. because the factual knowledge we will need in twenty years is so different from that which is available now), and the rebuttals to these sometimes come from #2. Hm.


      1. Very true, the arguments against #1 do sometimes come in that direction. But I still think that old facts are the basis off of which we discover new ones! (Admittedly, what is on the frontier certainly does change.)


      2. Yeah, I agree that having a factual basis — a landscape of objects to connect — is prerequisite to innovation.


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