Teachers Who Hate Knowledge

“Kids don’t look to teachers for knowledge anymore; Google can provide knowledge.” — Eric Jensen, blogs.edweek.org 10/13/13

This much misquoted and oft retweeted comment from Eric Jensen’s blog post of October 2013 keeps getting under my skin. Jensen’s original post is excellent (please read it), but it is about education’s role in reversing poverty, not about eliminating content from teaching. I love learning from other teachers on Twitter, but it seems like many of them are trying to eliminate content knowledge from the curriculum and focus only on innovation and creativity. How do they suppose students are going to create anything when they know nothing? In their urgent quest to focus only on the higher-order thinking skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy, they forget why the visual representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy is a pyramid: higher order thinking skills must rest on a wide base of knowledge.

Each year I assign my sophomores an essay by Harold Bloom about Macbeth. (From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) This brilliant essay is a model of the sort of thing I’d love to see from my students when they write their critical essays. It features an incredible original thesis (Macbeth’s violence against children is an acting out of his sexual dysfunction) brilliantly supported by close reading and evidence from the text. But all of this rests upon Bloom’s broad and masterful knowledge of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the whole darn Western literary cannon. How can we expect students to do writing like this that expresses their creativity if they haven’t read widely? Bloom’s essay rests atop a methodology that draws heavily from Freud, too. My students haven’t read Freud yet.

When I taught AP Art History, an essay assignment I created asked students to compare a modern church designed by a contemporary architect to medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches they had studied earlier in the year. I was very proud of that assignment; to perform well students needed to use skills from all of the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The “evaluation” that they were doing required them to demonstrate a mastery of terms we had studied, compare and contrast floor plans and elevations, and consider how sacred spaces affect the worshiper. A student couldn’t write the essay without having read the chapters in our text on Early Christian, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance art and architecture, and they needed to do research on the contemporary architect they had been assigned in order to make sense of this strange, modern building they had been assigned.

The real issue here is the extent to which we should be teaching content. I agree that the shift away from asking students to learn by rote towards a style of teaching in which students have to exercise critical thinking skills is an improvement. However, it isn’t enough for students to Google the fact they need when they need it. Students need to actually learn content in a particular sequence (“curated,” so to speak, by experts) in order to create the necessary context within their minds to do more advanced work down the road. This may require memorizing a sonnet by Shakespeare, or some of the Periodic Table, or the multiplication tables, or the state capitals, etc. Just because we can outsource a portion of our memories to the internet doesn’t mean that the right path is a race to the bottom in which we never ask students to commit content to their long-term memories. We might even (gasp!) use a little class time to cover content now and then. While I don’t dedicate much time in class to rote learning of content knowledge, sometimes it is necessary, and that doesn’t equate to outdated or poor teaching.

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