Monday, December 17, 2018


401. Schooling in the modern world

There is debate on how to teach, in  primary and secondary education, in the modern world. Does the old idea of education as transfer of knowledge still apply in a world where Internet provides easy access to all the knowledge there is? How to cope with this flood of knowledge?

Younger teachers (such as my daughter Anouk) claim that it no longer makes sense to transfer facts and figures, and to give lengthy lectures, in one-directional transfer. They plead for a more dialogical process, in discussion between teachers and pupils, and pupils among each other. Instead of cramming facts into them, let them ask questions and then look for answers and debate them.

Older people (like myself) ask what then happens to the use of existing knowledge: does that not get neglected or even lost? And they argue that one must have knowledge to know what questions to ask.

Also, isn’t the present calamity of the production and credence of fake news due to lack of knowledge and critical thought, disregard of the facts and how they connect?

Who is right? Both are, depending on what meaning of knowledge you take. 

Cognitive science offers the distinction between on the one hand declarative knowledge, of facts of date, place, people, and events, and on the other hand procedural knowledge about logics and processes of structure, causal or logical connection, with arguments of implication or other inference or association. They occupy different regions of the brain.

Facts are isolated, while procedures give their connection. That makes it easier to remember, because of coherence where the one thing rests upon the other, like a house of cards, and one can use the one as a trigger to remember the other. It is beginning to happen to me that I can’t remember the name of the author of a book, but I can tell you what he or she tells.

The problem of the flood of information in the Internet age may be solved by teaching the procedural knowledge needed to ask the right questions and to connect the facts, offering cognitive and logical structures in which one can fill in the facts taken from Internet.

Procedural knowledge can be learned by reading books that supply arguments and analyses, but the book does not answer back to questions that may arise. For that, one would have to check the references and trace the trail of literature involved.

But for that knowledge the internet offers the ideal vehicle, to search for sources and connections. And if reading is replaced, to a greater or lesser extent, by dialogue and debate, does that not make the process faster and more versatile, and the learning of how to ask questions and evaluate answers more fruitful?

In other words: could one not make the learning of procedural knowledge the cornerstone of teaching, and train how to develop that and use it in tracing, filling in and evaluating the facts from internet?

This connects with my arguments, in earlier items in this blog, that one needs the opposition from others, in debate, to have a chance of being freed from ignorance and prejudice. For that one also needs sufficient variety of cognition, at a cognitive distance large enough to yield surprising insights but not too large to absorb and make use of it. That would also train pupils not to hide in the comfort of filter bubbles that confirm prejudice.

A complication may be the following. How do you grade students when there are no standard tests of knowledge, in the more processual mode of procedural learning? Or is the very concept of grading a bit of old thinking? But then, does evaluation of students and their progress not become too subjective, based on a teacher’s impressions, and is that not prejudicial, and susceptible to negotiation between teacher and student? Might that not lead to inequality and a decline of standards?