“All the information is out there on the internet,” education instructors and administrators say. “We need to teach them critical thinking skills, not just facts.”
But critical thinking skills only work when a person has a certain number of facts at their disposal to put into some sort of framework. That information on the internet is only useful within a framework. In language, the framework is called grammar. We have been moving away from teaching grammar. It’s not much fun, for one thing. I also suspect that we’ve reached the point where many of our elementary school teachers don’t know basic grammar.
In language studies, a formidable amount of new vocabulary comes packaged with unavoidable and often unfamiliar grammar. Since many districts now teach almost no grammar in elementary school, accordingly, many high school freshman and sophomores (plus a few juniors and seniors) cannot identify a subject and verb, much less a direct or indirect object. All first year language classes run up against these problems, and language teachers may become students first real grammar teachers.
(If you doubt that last statement, check with your school district. I was entertained in a staff meeting a couple of years ago when speakers brought up the greater success of local Catholic schools at state standardized testing. The pundit who had been trying to tease out the Catholic advantage told us, “One thing they do is teach grammar. That seems to help their students on the test.” A few teachers around the room expressed surprised, grammar being so old-school and out of fashion. The rest of us sat there thinking, “Duhh.”)
The current retrieval/critical thinking approach to education has various flaws. While I am not objecting to teaching information retrieval and critical thinking — vital components for today’s students without doubt — I think teachers and others should stand up for memorization. Memorization provides the girders we use to build critical-thinking skills. Memorization also gives students practice doing something tedious that provides them with long-term benefit. For that matter, I think teachers should stand up for tedium, for the many benefits that come from doing activities that are not fun.
Our students will be the better for that tedium in the long-run. With practice, maybe when that first job turns out to be boring, they won’t just quit. Maybe when that engineering program proves difficult, they won’t switch majors to something easier but less likely to provide them with the life they desire. Maybe when marriage becomes less exciting than expected, they will understand that quiet commitment can be a better choice than the endless search for more fireworks. The research clearly indicates that learning also postpones dementia in the elderly, with luck even preventing that loss of skill, understanding, and personhood entirely.
Retrieval can be a gateway to learning. But our students have to open the gate. They won’t do that by cutting and pasting facts into word documents.
I believe foreign language classes highlight a flaw in current educational methodology. We rely on our machines to provide us with answers. Educational administrations love Smart Boards and computers, IPads and graphing calculators. All these tools have a place and, please, don’t get me wrong: I love technology too.
But learning is grittier than that. Learning requires mental sweat. Learning requires a time commitment. Before anyone can think critically, they need to gain knowledge and marshal facts to form their arguments.
Here’s why I am writing this: I am hitting a remarkable amount of resistance to having to memorize words in my language classes. Most students understand the necessity to know the words in the chapter by the time of the chapter test. But a solid minority keep looking for a quick fix. They want to be able to look up words on their phone instead. This minority really does not see the point in learning.
They want learning to occur incidentally during games with Skittles and Jolly Ranchers. They want to be able to half-learn some half-baked version of a foreign language that will be “good enough.” But “good enough” comes back to bite people regularly. Almost “good-enough” may be just enough to get fired or to prevent getting hired in the first place.
Life is not always fun and does not always provide Skittles. (The candy comes out mostly on Thursdays before the quiz.) Retrieval does not necessarily build a knowledge-base. Critical thinking requires data and retrieved data is seldom as well-understood as learned data.