Wednesday, October 11, 2006

You can look it up...right?

An interesting thought emerged during a meeting at school yesterday. A participant suggested that, since the amount of information in the world is growing exponentially, it's not realistic for schools to teach everything. After all, this logic says, you can always look it up.

This philosophy holds that creating an agreed-up body of core knowledge actually limits children's education and does students a disservice. Things like reading lists of great literature are seen as elitist or restrictive. Instead, according this argument, schools need to arm students with skills that will allow them to function in this fast-growing information age.

Well, no one would argue against preparing students to function effectively in a world that's evolving at a dizzying pace. Critical thinking, the ability to synthesize, interpret and analyze, and a true inner love of learning are all incredibly inportant life skills. But can they be learned in isolation?

No way, according to many leading educators, who decry what they see as an education system focused almost entirely on a Bloom's Taxonomy list of skills without any foundation in shared knowledge.

The philosophical leader of this approach is E.D. Hirsch, whose life work has focused on creating a set of "core knowledge" that all educated people should possess. (Granted, his proposed knowledge set is focused on the American student. But while the actual content he suggests wouldn't be appropriate for an international school, the overarching idea of setting a specific body of knowledge for students is appropriate for a school like JIS to consider.)

Hirsch argues that a basic agreement on what students should know at various points in their educational careers is important for several reasons:
  • Studying carefully selected great literature, art, historical documents, etc., gives students something meaningful to consider as they learn the "higher order thinking skills" that will help them function in our rapidly changing world. We can't separate knowledge from skills, says Hirsch. They're execorably linked.
  • Knowledge builds on knowledge. (For example, knowing and understanding Greek mythology helps students know and understand Shakespearean drama, which in turn, helps students handle other challenging literature.*)
  • A foundation of core knowledge levels the playing field, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
(Read more on Hirsch's ideas in his ground-breaking article, "'You Can Always Look It Up'... Or Can You?" which appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of The American Federation of Teachers' American Educator. This article is highly recommended.)

George Will, a Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist, weighs in on the subject in his short piece, "The Demise of Literature." (Apologies for the unconventional link -- I had problems coming up with the original.) He points out that shared reading actually binds people in a common culture.

"Why does content matter?" asks Diane Ravitch, noted educational expert. "Content matters because skills are not enough. Skills are necessary but they are only the beginning of learning. Without skills, one cannot acquire knowledge. Knowledge builds on knowledge."

JIS has the unique opportunity to determine -- as it did when it created the Essential Qualities of a JIS Learner -- the body of knowledge that a great global student should possess at various stages in his educational career. What literature should that global student read? What information about science, history, culture, art, and mathematics should a great global student master? Add this framework to the already strong skills-based curriculum at JIS, and we'd have a cutting-edge approach to fully educating our children.

It would be a difficult, probably contentious project. But just the reasoned process of considering what knowledge is critical in our international setting would make us all smarter as a community.

(*And this isn't just about "dead white men" literature. For example, an understanding of Mitch Albom's 1991 book Tuesdays with Morrie helps students unravel the mystery of Gilgamesh, the oldest epic story on earth. And that, in turn, would let students fully appreciate Episode 102 of Star Trek, The Next Generation. But maybe that's pushing the whole thing too far!)**

**Geeky teacher humor -- I'm a nerd at heart.


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