Monday, June 22, 2009

Critical Thinking vs Knowledge Base.

Teachers and educationistas are having a debate: do we teach knowledge or critical thinking?

I maintain that the one must precede the other, that knowledge must be internalized before critical thinking can truly take place. How can you expect a student to solve a complicated problem dealing with volume of water in an underground aquifer (with all of the requisite variations) if they have never dealt with simpler tasks like the volume of a rectangular solid or cylinder?

The idea that memorizing is bad while teaching thinking skills and problem solving is good is misguided. Memorizing is the first step toward understanding something more complicated - you memorize certain basic facts that frame the further discussion. If I ask the students to find the area of a complicated free-form shape, they can count squares all day. Is that appropriate? Knowing to break down the shape into squares and triangles (with their formulae memorized) turns the task from a silly exercise to one that is more high school appropriate.

Stressing critical thinking over memorization also results in less knowledge being internalized and more of the basic facts missing from the students' "toolbox". The student is forced to re-invent the wheel every time he needs something, re-conceptualize the method and re-imagine the solution. Then he has to solve it.

The debate over multiplication methods is illustrative. Calculator based curriculum proponents want the kids to use the machine at all times. They should estimate answers, but students don't care to estimate if they have the calculator - the "true" answer is quicker. The student who can do any multiplication problem by hand knows a lot more about the problem and can tell much more easily if the problem has been keyed incorrectly.

This issue, this divide between the schools of thought (sorry for the pun), must be resolved before this country will be able to move forward confidently into whatever the future holds for us. I fear that we will continue on the road to 21st century skills without any of the 20th century skills that are its complete foundation.

Drill and Kill? No, it's called practice. Understand one thing and then move on. Don't try to build the Tower of Babel on the shifting sands of spiralling and "We'll come back to it" and "Guide on the Side, not a Sage on the Stage."

I'm a knowledge first, thinking second kind of guy. I want to know what before I have an opinion. I know that one cannot solve a problem with tools he does not possess. Basic skills must be understood before the "extensions" will resonate in the education of the students. To put it another way, you've got to know some facts before you can solve the problem.

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