Knowledge as Regurgitation: Thinking Skills as Wisdom

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Throughout history, schools have been one of the main institutions for the dissemination and indoctrination of whatever was considered important to continue each society. Our schools do this. Even before No Child Left Behind, the teachers were the main source of knowledge and the students were the unthinking recipients. To indoctrinate them, this knowledge was given in specific times and places using control techniques to keep them quiet and focused. Drills, repetition, and coercion were mainly used and the students were expected to regurgitate upon command.

Classroom management techniques now are more persuasive than coercive, but workbooks and the usual assessments usually do not take more than memory to give back what was taught.

When cheap, handheld calculators became available, I questioned why we needed to demand children to memorize their number facts or teach them the meaning of the various processes. I thought it would be better to let them use the calculators and then spend our time actually solving real world (theirs) problems that needed math. They were more interested and attentive and I even managed to get most to better understand and to ask questions about the math processes. They were not as stressed about math and they became more self-confident, so their natural curiosity was released.

Math was understandable and they saw how it was useful in their lives. Because they used the calculators and I helped them with the steps in the math processes, most lost their fear and antipathy toward math. As importantly, I was able to move them from blind regurgitation to thinking and solving the dreaded math word problems. They began to love the challenge.

When voice recognition became a possibility, I began to see its use beyond application just for special education students. I'd been individualizing reading for years and knew how to manage a class to do this - long before computers.

Many of the reading techniques now available have their uses with most students. However, voice recognition offers a unique way for each to think rather than passively respond to text and other printed materials. The student speaks into the computer, tells his experiences, creates his own stories, or explains something he has read or heard about. While he is talking he can see and hear what he's saying so it more strongly embeds in different areas in his brain. Memory depends on attention -- a focusing -- and the student is very interested and focuses on what appears on the screen.

Everything he's learned and experienced becomes the basis of what he writes (and is reading). When he reads it back to his teacher, peers, or to himself, he is painlessly reinforcing his reading skills. Printed out, he can take his work home to share with his family for more natural, unforced reinforcement.

With a spelling and grammar checker that highlights his errors, he automatically improves his use of language, which increases his ability to think more clearly. The process of writing encourages him and, with his teacher's help, his ability to write improves, as does his thinking while he struggles to make his efforts clearer to others.

I questioned the content of much of the curriculum. What passes for fourth grade level social science is now at the levels my sixth graders faced with their texts fifty years ago. Much of it is too difficult for each grade level. We try to hurry them through the material because we erroneously believe that they must learn this knowledge at this age level or they will not be educated. Also, we're concerned about testing so there are time constraints.

I tried to bring in armloads of books to teach the material in more interesting or diverse ways, but they were overwhelmed - as I was. With the internet they can have access to whatever basic content we believe is important for that skill or content area. It offers pictures, videos, and content (some curriculum packages do this, too) that they can select on the basis of their reading levels and interests. They can then work independently, in pairs, triads, or small groups if they share common interests. From that they can use many ways to share what they've learned with the entire class. It gives them a variety of presentations of the content rather than just one - the teacher. It gives them practice in preparing and presenting things with increasing clarity. This is where and when I could teach them because they wanted to do this better. They were motivated to listen. It also forces them to talk about what they've learned. When they attempt to do this, they learn that the more clearly they have thought through something, the better they can present it. Trying to do this creates the teachable moments when I can step in to help them think more deeply.

Motivation is not such a problem, nor is keeping them on task. More importantly, the skills to do this are not only useful in school, but transfer to their adult lives. This does not mean that the teacher stops using lectures and texts, too, because any singular method tends to lose its effectiveness as students accommodate it. That's why it should be up to the teacher to be sensitive to his observation of each class and then have the freedom to use whatever he thinks would work at that moment in time with that class. No one else knows his class as well.

The above are a few examples of how we can move from regurgitation of knowledge to thinking skills and wisdom. We can no longer just disseminate our knowledge of the past, but need to teach our students how to use thinking skills so they can have the wisdom to deal with the complex problems of the present and future.