August 6, 2022
Keenya Oliver Bemis, who teaches high school biology in Schenectady, gave a talk to my local humanist group based on Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap — The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System — And How to Fix It. The main idea is that kids don’t know nothin’.
For a long time it was thought that education shouldn’t be about stuffing them with facts, but rather instilling thinking and comprehension skills. Which does sound good. So we get reading lessons presenting some text and asking students to identify its main idea. But the problem is that that requires a certain amount of foundational background knowledge. Which a lot of kids today woefully lack. So the thinking and comprehension lessons fail.
Bemis illustrated the problem by presenting some verbiage about baseball that most Americans would grasp, but not Brits. In contrast, a passage about cricket would baffle most Americans.
She invoked the “Matthew Effect” named for the Biblical snippet saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, this means that kids coming in with a good stock of basic knowledge find it easier to absorb further knowledge; whereas those starting out behind fall further behind.
Another concept here is “chunking,” which refers to seeing information in a meaningful context, fitting bits and pieces into a whole picture. That puts less strain on working memory, thus again freeing up brain resources to absorb additional knowledge. But “chunking” requires some knowledge in the first place.
In all these regards, it’s disadvantaged kids whose disadvantage is compounded. They tend to get a lot less basic knowledge in the home environment than do more affluent brats; they rely more on school for it. But (in addition to all the many ways schools don’t serve disadvantaged kids well) they don’t get it in school either, with prevailing educational theories again focusing on trying to develop broad skills like critical thinking and comprehension rather than factual knowledge. Indeed, pedagogy in subjects like social studies and science is being cut back in favor of more reading instruction. Which is nevertheless failing — because the kids lack necessary foundational knowledge. A chicken and egg thing.
Of course this begs the question of what’s to be considered foundational knowledge — and how that gets decided.
But Bemis repeatedly expressed shock and dismay at what very basic stuff her own high schoolers don’t know. Like geography — understanding a map. Is Australia a “city?” How to use a ruler. How to round numbers and use decimals. What an atom is. What the heart does. What gas we breathe.
She posited that kids actually do better, and engage more, with content-rich lessons, as opposed to abstraction-filled ones of the “what is the main idea” sort. And writing is a useful tool, forcing the recollection of information, to help retain knowledge and build long term memory. I think there must actually be a “happy medium” wherein raw factual injections are balanced with at least some attention to more abstract realms of critical thinking and comprehension.
This is part of a larger problem. We’re becoming a nation of ignorami. It’s long been clear we’re in an epistemology crisis — too many people just don’t even understand what makes information information, as to opposed to being crap. When someone says they’re doing their own “research,” it often means shunning sound information in favor of crap. Indeed, in today’s world, getting the straight dope is not actually hard, if you have a minimum of common sense about it. You really have to go out of your way to get the nonsense. Yet that’s what many people do.
This — and the kind of basic ignorance Bemis observed — makes it impossible to sustain our civic culture of pluralistic democracy. When people don’t know what Australia, or an atom is, it’s not surprising they don’t know Trump is a monster.