Earlier this year, Daisy Christodoulou published an excellent ebook called “Seven Myths about Education”. In this book, Daisy outlined a number of what she perceived to be ‘myths’ that were damaging the quality of education for young people. One of these myths was that ‘you can always just look it up’; in other words, the idea that we do not need to retain factual information because, should we need such information, we can just use Wikipedia or Google to find it.
Many writers, bloggers and commentators, including E D Hirsch Jr, welcomed the book. However, not everyone was as convinced by the argument. Some criticisms were directed at the notion that the myths that Daisy identified were either non-existent – e.g. “nobody I know says you can just look knowledge up” – or that their impact was minimal. For instance, Tom Sherrington had this to say in his blog:
“Most teachers already explicitly teach facts and transmit knowledge as part and parcel of their everyday work. If anything, we have a strong orientation towards exam preparation; exams are not as content free as some people suggest. The new NC may have notched up some content areas; the new GCSEs may have more knowledge requirements, but already school curricula are knowledge rich. Just look at the exam specifications. It is just a question of degrees.”
I attempted to counter the notion that Daisy was tilting at windmills by writing my own post where I quote various luminaries’ views about the teaching of factual knowledge. I have also pointed out this flaw in the arguments of Seth Godin.
However, I suppose what really matters is what is happening in the classroom. Is this all just theoretical fluff? Do teachers really accept any of these myths and do they have a real impact?
That is why I was intrigued when I awoke this morning to find a #ukedchat taking place on Twitter about knowledge. From the comments, I initially assumed that the subject of the chat was something like, “Do you think that teaching factual knowledge is important.” However, when I looked it up, I realised that the actual question already assumed a position on factual knowledge. It was, “What way can we get students to learn factual knowledge?” Nevertheless, it seemed that many Tweeters took the opportunity to say things about Googling facts. Now, Tweeting teachers may not be representative of teachers as a whole but I do think it is important to recognise what they are saying. Here are a few sample of anti-knowledge comments:
“Wikipedia and Google are quite good at remembering facts for me.”
“Should we allow Google in exams? Googling is a skill!”
“Teach the rules, not just a list one day and test end of week! In fact don’t test!”
“Force kids to learn anything, and it’ll be resented. Foster a love of learning and job done; learners will then learn wot’s needed”
“Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare w searching &enquiring &pursuing topics that engage us & excite us.”
“I don’t retain facts that well, but I have search engines and the internet at my finger tips.”
“Well written exams don’t just test facts, they test skills too.”
“There seems to be a real gap between ‘real life’ and what is required to learn facts to pass exams. Exams fit for purpose?”
“Factual knowledge only matters if its important to the students. They need to be able to discern the right knowledge.”
“Factual knowledge is the easy bit. It’s the higher order skills that are tricky.”
These are not all of the comments that were made. Many comments were highly sensible suggestions around retaining factual knowledge. However, it is worth realising that this myth is out there.