What can’t students look up?

The blogosphere is bubbling with commentators saying students should not have to learn information they can look up. It’s not terribly difficult to identify items that someone can look up quickly: the capital of Mali or the gestation period of the zebra, for example.

It’s a good deal harder to specify what  sorts of knowledge students must learn so well  they can readily:

  • recall their knowledge
  • apply their knowledge
  • create new information with their knowledge

If educators make the wrong choices about what to teach to that level, students and society will be serious losers.

In making their choices, educators need to look at four long-term impacts of those choices.

Impact on learning fluency

Knowing some kinds of information makes learning other kinds of information easier and faster. The kinds of knowledge that make other learning easier are not usually discrete facts, but processes and procedures.

When I teach nonfiction writing, for example, I teach one writing pattern (thesis and support) and a set of supporting strategies. Once students have mastered that pattern, they can learn other writing patterns far more easily. They compare what the features of what they need to learn to the features of what they already learned. A student who may have taken 20 essays to learn thesis and support writing, may get compare-contrast writing right on first try.

Impact on critical thinking

Some topics are more important to think about than others. And often a topic is more important in some contexts than in others. It is probably more important to think about how the concept of fairness is applied in elections or access to education, for example, than to develop procedures for training basketball referees.

Impact on employability

Even if they go on to college, most students will have to work at least during vacations and probably part-time during the school year. Students who do poorly in their first jobs may not get many second chances in a competitive economy.

Students need  entry-level job skills that will allow them to do such things as:

  • Fill out a job application.
  • Make change.
  • Write a receipt.
  • Answer a telephone professionally.
  • Take a message.
  • Get information by telephone.
  • Learn to do a job on the job.

Training is a luxury most employers can’t afford to offer part-time and temporary workers. If students cannot learn fast by observing and asking questions, they are not likely to be successful.

Impact on future learning

The really difficult question is  not  whether Josh and Caitlin  will they be able to look up this specific information later if they don’t learn it today, but whether be able to look up other information later if they don’t learn this today.

Some information is difficult to look up unless you know context, concepts, and a few basic terms. For example, people can (and do) use a computer without knowing terms that explain how the computer works.  Without knowing some terminology for the processes they use daily, those folks are hamstrung when they need to look up information about how to use their computer for specific tasks.

As tough as these issues are, they do have a bright side: They don’t require adding a lesson or a unit. They usually require picking fewer items to teach at a greater depth, and bringing in practical, hands-on applications that students are likely to enjoy.