By Karin Chenoweth
Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, is the author of numerous articles and three books on schools that are succeeding with significant populations of children of color and children living in poverty. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, to which she is a regular contributor.
A commonplace idea floating around schools is that learning facts is the wave of the past.
The basic argument goes like this: Now that we can Google any facts we want, why would anyone need to learn them? They’re so boring! Instead, kids need to learn the skills of “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”
Or, as my kids’ elementary school principal used to say, it doesn’t matter if kids know where Nebraska is as long as they can find out where it is.
A lot of cognitive science argues against this point of view, and some of it can be found here.
But the point I want to make today is that kids love knowing facts. You can almost see them puff up with pride when they can tell a fact to a grownup who doesn’t know it. It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know—like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock, or that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is pi and its decimal representation is infinite—that means it goes on forever!
Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.
I was reminded of the thrill kids have in learning facts a while back when I visited Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Brooke’s students are mostly African American (73 percent) and Latino (25 percent), with 82 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Students at Brooke Charter outperform students in the state by a lot—for example, 91 percent of third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards—compared with 57 and 68, respectively, in the state.
I had asked to speak to students in different grades. The principal set up a little focus group with two third-graders, two fourth-graders, and two fifth-graders and then left us alone.
A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.
I’m sure she was exaggerating somewhat, but another third-grader with a similar experience chimed in to say that he, too, had played most of the time in a previous school. That’s when one of the wise sages in the fifth grade explained that “here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge.”
Her fifth-grade colleague added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework.
Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff—stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.
I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers—not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.