What they learn vs how to learn

A review of the Guide to K-12 Terminology:

…“Critical thinking” occasions the comment, “Increasingly, educators believe that schools should focus more on critical thinking than on memorization of facts.” Increasingly? This false distinction has been in play for over a century, since Dewey and his progressive pals first introduced it. Sometimes public schools seem to be fighting their own hundred years war on “rote memorization.” It is a meaningless battle. Memory is an indispensible part of learning, and “critical thinking” along with a lot of other intellectual skills would be impossible without it. The only real question is: what should we commit to memory?

A new answer is racing around the edu-world—so new that it isn’t even in shiny blue Education Week Guide to K-12 Terminology. The new answer for what students should learn is called “21st century skills.” I first heard of it while following the battle in Massachusetts over the fate of that state’s successful two-decade-long and enormously expensive rise to the top in student performance. The current governor, Deval Patrick, a warm friend to the teachers’ unions, has launched reforms aimed at taking the rigor out of his state’s curriculum frameworks. His alternative? 21st century skills.

Well, of course. Bay Staters don’t want to be caught teaching students sixth century Massachusetts skills, such as how to build fish weirs in tidal basins; or twelfth century skills, such as how to steer your longboat back to Iceland; or nineteenth century skills, such as how to run efficient woolen mills. But what exactly are those 21st century skills? If you care to dig into the matter, you have numerous options, such as Learning for the 21st Century by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills; or Twenty-First Century Skills by the Meitiri Group; or Massachusetts’ own Partnership for 21st Century Skills. But if you want a short answer, “21st century skills” are…“critical thinking.”

Yes, once again.

It’s even older than the author realizes. Charlotte Mason, an educator at the turn of the 19th century, took issue with the idea then prevalent in British schools:

She talks in one of her books about how impertinent, dangerous, and interfering it would be to constantly be inspecting the child’s digestive system to make sure it was working properly, or to try to separate the functions and strengthen each one individually.

Instead, we give the child healthy, nourishing food, and trust the digestive process to take care of itself. In the same way, she suggests we give the children healthy,
nourishing, generous material for him to set his mind upon, and let the faculty development take care of itself- in, again, ‘normal’ children. She acknowledges some children will need special help, just as some children need special assistance to learn to walk.

I think she also believed that the balance was skewed and was trying to correct it- that the student was the one who needed to be doing the mental work, but with the apperception mass nonsense floating around, the teachers ended up doing all the work and making all the connections for the student- about as helpful as moving a normal child’s legs for him to help him walk. They needed to let go of his mental legs and give him a wide and generous place to walk- if that makes any sense at all.

If the child already has the powers of mind which fit him to deal all that knowledge, then we have no need to ‘educate the faculties,’ to teach them *how* to learn. This would be about as useful and productive an activity as it would to create a special, child-world which will ‘enable’ them to walk.
Both are superfluous.

Normal children (and as a mother of a disabled child, I appreciate the distinction Charlotte makes) will walk. All we need to do is get out of their way, make sure the places they walk are safe, give them many opportunities to walk and make sure _we_ do not hinder their walking through unnatural interventions.
Normal children do not need their minds ‘developed.’ They do not need special programs designed to help their brains develop. They need for us to get out of their way, to make sure the places they learn are safe,give them many opportunities to learn, and they need us to be sure we do not hinder their minds through unnatural
interventions (some of which have been addressed in other principles and other posts- things like t.v., performance style teaching, unit studies based on unnatural and contrived connections, etc).

Charlotte Mason disagreed with this theory about education being necessary for children to develop their ‘mental faculties,’ and while she tried to be gentle in the article I am transcribing and in other places in her six volume work on education, in volume 3 Miss Mason came right out and said that the whole idea about developing these separate ‘faculties of the mind’ was a “pestilent fallacy which has, perhaps, been more injurious than any other to the cause of education.”

Shreds of this theory have come down to us as ‘it doesn’t matter what a child learns as long he learns how to learn. She dismissed that idea once by pointing out it was about as sensible as saying it doesn’t matter what we eat so long we learn HOW to eat. Of course what we learn is vitally important- both in food for the body and food for the soul.

As a sidenote, I have come to realize that when people say “it
doesn’t matter what our children learn as long as they learn how to learn”- well, the ‘learning’ they are talking about isn’t really learning at all- it is only research skills.

E.D. Hirsch (Core Knowledge) wrote:

The most harmful idea is that children do not need a knowledge-rich curriculum to become proficient readers. The word reading, of course, has two senses. The first means the process of turning printed marks into sounds and these sounds into words. But the second sense means the very different process of understanding those words. Learning how to read in the first sense, as vital as it is, does not guarantee learning how to read in the second sense, comprehending the meaning of what is read. To become a good comprehender, a child needs a great deal of knowledge. A romantically inspired long delay in beginning to teach that knowledge is socially and economically harmful to our students—especially our most disadvantaged students. (emphasis added)

This particular assumption has become so internalized that I have even heard homeschoolers talk wisely about ‘it doesn’t matter what they learn, so long as they learn how to learn.’ Usually everybody in the room will nod sagely, as though something profound was just said. I’ve done it myself. We seldom think about the meaning behind such a statement. Of course it ought to matter immensely what the children learn, especially since we all know, if we would only think about it, that healthy children already know how to learn. They do come hard-wired with a desire to know. It’s the stuff of learning that they don’t have. As early as the 1900’s Charlotte Mason was addressing this faulty assumption. In fact, though she usually is gentle to a fault when speaking of ideas with which she disagrees, she goes so far as to call this one a farce:

We must give up the farce of teaching young people how to learn, which is just as felicitous a labour and just as necessary as to teach a child the motions of eating without offering him food… The multitudinous things that every person wants to know must be made accessible in the schoolroom, not by diagrams, digests, and abstract principles; but boys and girls, like ‘Kit’s little brother,’ must learn ‘what oysters is’ by supping on oysters. There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books…. We have to face two difficulties. We do not believe in children as intellectual persons nor in knowledge as requisite and necessary for intellectual life.

I’ve mentioned before that I have found the best answer to the socialization question is a question, “What do you mean by socialization?’

We need to question ourselves, too. When we say it doesn’t matter what our children learn as much as that they learn how to learn, what do we mean? Probably, if we investigate our thinking, we merely mean some basic research skills.

Does it really take years to learn that?

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