I descend today into a discussion of professional pedagogy (which is not illegal, usually). So if you aren't a teacher, or at least interested in education, please feel free to read this simply to bask in my brilliance and count the number of times I include Nina in this post. Hint. The answer is 1, and you just passed it.
Teaching is supposed to be about the student. I'm not up here for my health, people. I present a fascinating mix of facts, stories and instruction so that students leave the class with a framework of understanding, a practiced skill which might allow them to apply the information (or know how to find and assimilate new information) and without a distaste for the subject, the educational process, the school, and most importantly, me. This is my approach. And I know that it doesn't fit every discipline, every group, every school or every historical era. Time was, the teacher presented the information and the students then moved into the world rich with facts, and saddled with the task of figuring out what to do with that information (1). The teacher of yesteryear (or current year) might not have been as concerned with the student's not hating him or the school. This might be because he had a better sense of self-esteem or because his salary wasn't predicated on student enrollment. But this combination works for me. I don't know if it works for my students (2).
Newer trends in teaching continue to stress the student centered approach, de-emphasizing the teacher as expert (sage on the stage -- which has nothing to do with either herbs or Broadway (3) ) and letting the student and his educational growth be central while the teacher is the "guide on the side" (4). The combination of integrating technology and working in inquiry or problem or project based learning to give students a sense of control over their educational path and help students see what they learn as part of a preparation for real life-like future is a shift "devoutly to be wished" (5).
Along with this move there has been a consistent refocusing of energies on the rigorous pursuit of Higher Order Thinking skills. In case you don't recall your Intro courses, there is this hierarchy of thinking skills called "Bloom's Taxonomy." Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with stuffing Bloom and mounting him in your trophy room. I mean, maybe it once did, but not anymore. It is a six step ladder of thinking skills going from the Lower ones (Knowledge and Comprehension) to the Higher ones (Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation). In fact, the digital age has inspired those people who have time to be inspired by anything to create a new hierarchy. Here is another version of it. The thing is, I believe that we are doing a real disservice to our students under the guise of this improvement.
I do believe in thinking. I do appreciate critical analysis and implementation of ideas in a way more advanced than rote recitation. But in our drive towards the top, we have forgotten that the brain qua (6) muscle needs a variety of exercises. We cannot ignore the foundational skills and factual basis because we have allowed the technological mode to supplement our own, independent "knowing." I believe with all my heart that, no matter what I can find on the internet, there is real value to memorization and recalling factual knowledge. I give my students spelling and vocabulary lists. I ask them to remember technical terms and events mentioned in their reading. I expect them to know things at the drop of a hat (never my hat, mind you). Sure, they could find the information online after a couple of seconds but life demands that people know things when they are needed. I have to be able to quote Hamlet without looking it up (7); I have to remember the best word to use in a situation. I have to understand what happened before I can do anything with it. [Ironically enough, this article says that technological pedagogy focuses mostly on Lower Order Thinking Skills, but that's because his example of technology is the Youtube video which is no different from a simple lecture.]
We have become so blinded by this pursuit of the HOTS that we forget that students need the LOTS. For some skills, we take for granted that simple knowledge is important. But we then think that either technology can replace the LOTS (using a calculator for simple addition) or that the LOTS are no longer independently necessary and that in the pursuit of HOTS students will pick up the basics. This is foolishness. Even through High School, students need to be able to perform tasks which demand recall and knowledge as discrete demonstrations of mastery and practice. They need to be assessed on these lower levels even while they are also moving ahead. When we ignore the LOTS, we end up building our HOTS on nothingness and they are bound to fail us eventually. We can't teach critical reading without assuming that students understand basic grammar facts. We can't teach calculus if students don't have instant recall of the times tables. And we can't assume that, as we move forward in the investigation of primary historical documents, all students know how to read. Students can analyze what they don't know how to find.
Now, very few people are explicitly saying that we should ignore LOTS. Blogs, speakers and textbooks (8) remind us constantly (9) that the LOTS are instrumental and still vital. But even while people pay lip service to the lower thinking, there is this constant push to increase the HOTS (which, by dint of finite time) means less stress on LOTS. And this is wrong. The HOTS, to my mind, are what we can de-emphasize. If a student has that solid grounding in facts and understanding, and has information presented interestingly by someone who can make the student not hate school, and maybe even value the process of education (10) he will survive and learn to apply and synthesize as he runs into situations which require the knowledge and skills he has acquired. I would rather my surgeon have memorized the body parts and then learn to create new surgical procedures than have him or her able to come up with all sorts of neat approaches to surgery but have to consult a search engine mid-procedure because he doesn't remember what the hip bone is connected to.
(1) I have no citation for this. i just made it up. But the inclusion of a footnote is really classy, don't you think?
(2) Maybe I should find that out. Dang! Footnotes are fun. Now I see why my dad uses them.
(3) Should that have been a footnote? I guess not. Carry on.
(4) In my class, that's the snide on the side.
(5) That's from Hamlet III, i. And it is important that I quoted it.
(6) Latin for "kwa."
(7) In speech. When I'm writing and can pause, no one notices a google search or a trip to the library.
(8) cf note 1.
(9) Yes, even right now. And now.
(10) Hey! That sounds like what I try to do.