Thinking critically about content

Twenty-first century skills, the subject of three recent reports, require deep understanding of subject matter, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog.

Shallow understanding requires knowing some facts. Deep understanding requires knowing the facts AND knowing how they fit together, seeing the whole. It’s simply harder. And skills like “analysis” and “critical thinking” are tied to content; you analyze history differently than you analyze literature.

The 21st-century skills boosters usually acknowledge the content problem, but don’t address it, he argues. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Clarion calls for more attention to 21st-century skills brings to mind a familiar pattern in the history of education: pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on.

Everyone knows students need both knowledge and skills, he writes. But somehow the pendulum always swings too far one way and then too far the other.

Update: Here’s an anti-knowledge argument from a Brit, who says kids can look up facts on the Internet.

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  1. “somehow the pendulum always swings too far one way”
    I don’t recall any time when people complained that students these days know too many facts but don’t know what to do with them. Neither do I recall any time when people were amazed at all the wonderful skills young people amass in public school, but what a shame they don’t have any facts to apply them against.
    More that the pendulum isn’t swinging at all, and we have students who are both ignorant and unskilled.

  2. Britannica Blog is tightly censored. Reader comments incompatible with Britannica’s commercial or ideological proclivities are excluded. Boycott Britannica censorship.

  3. @adair
    The complaint is not about what students have achieved, but about what people perceive to the emphasis in school.

  4. Physics Teacher says:

    Dan Willingham is my new hero.

    I like his scholarly expositions of how learning works. I was especially interested in the way in which inflexible knowledge is a natural stepping stone toward more flexible knowledge.

    As a physics teacher, I can take what is essentially the same kinematics problem, change the window dressing 4 ways, and get a problem set of 5 questions. To students, these are completely different problems and they need to practice to be able to see the deep structure of the problem.

    One of the frustrations of teaching today is the grand idea of continually checking for understanding. When these students are still in the middle of acquiring their inflexible knowledge they appear to observers as not understanding the problem (which they don’t, yet) But the observer — generally an administration type — refuses to see this as a natural step in the student’s knowledge aquistion and insists that immediate understanding be made evident, or that the lesson be retaught. It’s like checking for healing five minutes after a broken bone has been set and resetting if it hasn’t shown visible signs of healing (which it won’t)

    Many students themselves have absorbed this way of thinking and will stare at a problem saying “I don’t understand” instead of following a procedure like drawing a free body diagram, applying laws, and doing the math.

    I’m hoping Dr. Willingham can explore how his research supports or discredits various popular teaching theories.

  5. Yes, because we know that there’s never anything *wrong* on the internet.

    And it wouldn’t do to teach kids how to detect things that are wrong.

    Honestly, since calculators exist, we don’t need to teach kids to multiply, either. When they punch in 64 * 17 and get 11328, then it must be right, right? No sense teaching them to estimate 60 * 20 = 1200 and wonder where the extra digit came from.

    Tapscott said: “Children are going to have to reinvent their knowledge base multiple times. So for them memorising facts and figures is a waste of time.”

    Yes and no. Memorizing things that will change year after year is a waste. Memorizing a scaffolding of history to hang their understandings on, basic geography, physics, mathematics, government, logic, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, a second language, general terms of psychology and sociology to understand diversity of people and cultures… all these things are critical to their ability to – in Tapscott’s terms – “process new information at lightning speed”.

  6. Dal
    I whole-heartedly agree with you.
    Elsewhere I have written about why some of the knowledge must be in your head, and why looking it up won’t do, but Don Hirsch wrote a very to-the-point piece on this for American Educator titled “You can always look it up. . .or can you?” You can read it here:
    Physics Teacher: thanks for the kind words. If you have specific suggestions of things you think I should explore, please email me.

  7. But hey, if it is the pendulum, each swing will be a little shorter, and we’ll spend more and more time closer to the center, until eventually it’s indistinguishable from perfection…

  8. Tapscott is a complete fool:

    The existence of Google, Wikipedia and online libraries means that there is no useful place in school for old-fashioned rote learning, according to Don Tapscott, author of the bestselling book Wikinomics and a champion of the “net generation”.

    A far better approach would be to teach children to think creatively so that they could learn to interpret and apply the knowledge available online.

    Speaking as someone who’s worked in such varied creative endeavors as music composition and software design, I can say with certainty that it’s impossible to be creative without a full understanding of what the challenge is. That understanding comes with a hell of a lot of rote learning. Without having all that information in my head, where my conscious and unconscious mind can play with it, creativity is impossible.

    Moreover, creative thinkers tend to come up with good ideas to solve problems by drawing on previous experience, which means the take-in-just-enough-information philosophy Tapscott espouses not only limits current creativity, it limits *future* creativity.

  9. I’ve got a few thoughts about these things at