Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Recommend what you know, or risk embodying what you don't

The latest to join the chorus of American intellectuals who argue that schools should stop teaching "tedious" facts and instead teach "21st century skills," fast on the heels of former Harvard president and presidential economics adviser Larry Summers, is popular science guru Jonah Lehrer. Here is he in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal:

One useful model for the 21st-century university is preschool. As the economist James Heckman has demonstrated, successful preschools don't increase the intelligence of toddlers or endow them with new knowledge they take to kindergarten. Rather, their early education leads to long-term improvements in "noncognitive" skills, boosting character traits such as self-control and conscientiousness.
Such traits often predict success in the real world better than I.Q. scores. And yet, colleges don't even attempt to improve them. Students are never taught how to regulate their emotions or study for a test. They don't learn how to take criticism or cope with failure.
Take perseverance. According to a study by the College Board in the early 1980s, a trait known as "follow-through" was one of the best predictors of success in college and beyond. But the modern university teaches follow-through only by accident, forcing students to take tedious classes and then rewarding those who don't drop out. That's a mistake. It's time to give students underlying skills that are not forgotten.
Is it really a surprise that preschools best prepare three and four-year-olds for kindergarten by fostering self-control and conscientiousness as opposed to attempting to "increase intelligence" and convey "new knowledge"?

And is it really a surprise that self-control, perseverance, and conscientiousness predict real world success better than IQ scores do?

But neither of these "findings" imply that post-K schools should give up on teaching the fact-rich disciplines for which self-control, conscientiousness, and perseverance are the prerequisites.

Dismissing factual content as "the sort of information that can now be looked up on a phone," and assuming that one can teach students "how to learn to think about thinking" in the absence of particular facts, Lehrer ignores both recent cognitive science research on the domain-specificity of critical thinking, and the possibility that self-control, conscientiousness, and perseverance matter largely because they are the prerequisites for mastering the bodies of knowledge that (yes, more than IQ scores!) predict real-world success.

Ironically, when they venture out of their fields of expertise and start making recommendations to educators, Jonah Lehrer, Larry Summers, et al end up unwittingly illustrating the domain-specificity of critical thinking that they so consistently ignore. If they knew more about what cognitive science research has to say about education, they wouldn't be making such foolish remarks about how we can teach children critical thinking and "21st century skills" without teaching them factual content.


Amy P said...

Somebody should make me head of the Treasury. It can't be THAT hard--all you have to do is look things up on your phone.

Auntie Ann said...

You can't even look something up, if you don't know the right thing to look for and how to phrase the search--that takes background knowledge.

Shannon Severance said...

Look it up?

"It's sad to think of the vast number of patients who get misleading guidance from the Internet because the main search engines currently prioritize popular sites instead of useful ones." [emphasis in original] from Jakob Nielsen's article "Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users' Problem Solving"