Friday, December 14, 2007

True Facts and Other Fiction

At the risk of some serious mother-child repercussions, I'm going to share a true story about my 9 year old son and his last minute research project on the state of Virginia. The project wasn't last minute, but the research was.

My son announced that the founder of Virginia was "G. Piper." Since that didn't sound right to me (I was thinking John somebody or Pocahontas), I asked where he found that. He pointed to the computer screen. When he typed "founder Virginia" into Google, I got the "Virginia G. Piper Foundation" with a lovely photograph of their founder, Virginia G. Piper. I helped him sort through the other foundations founded by people named Virginia, offers for visits to historic Jamestown (which is not a bad thing to do), and websites announcing that Virginia is for lovers. Once we found the historic sites, we had to sort through a variety of reading and accuracy levels to get to some basic information. Then he had at it and made a nice little project.

My father has always said that it's not as important to know things as it is to know where & how to find things.

Today, anything you want to find is on the World Wide Web, where information is available in mind boggling quantities at mind boggling speeds. It is chock full of information of varying quality, viewpoint, and purpose. In reading some websites' lists of facts, you might wonder if the author missed kindergarten on the day the teacher talked about "truth" and "make-believe." And while I don't necessarily believe that all I need to know I learned in kindergarten, I do think that's a pretty important life skill.

Not only do we need to know where to find things, we need to know how to evaluate and place all of these things we find. In order to do that, we need a knowledge base. We need to have some basic information stored in order to evaluate other things and place them in our mind maps.

But formal education can't teach us everything there is to know in the world, and it would be a disservice to all of us to try. Formal education should be used to teach us the basic skills we need to survive and thrive as citizens, humans, and active learners. Those skills include reading, writing, and arithmetic, but just as basic: investigating, evaluating, and formulating the knowledge in a useful way.

In addition, we need to be able to apply the knowledge and skills at the appropriate times. No, not every war is like Vietnam; not every conservative is a Nazi; not every nationalist is a Fascist. But who has learned to evaluate the differences and similarities and use the terms and concepts appropriately.

On a more basic level, can we do math in the kitchen? Can we use geometry to figure out how much mulch to get for the garden? Can we remember that if a closed can of Coca-cola is put in the freezer, it will explode, and why? Can we decide what brand of power drink to buy or who to vote for for president by evaluating more than 30 second commercials? Can we think?

Once we think we know, can we present our ideas in a reasonable, persuasive manner? Can we listen to others and continue the process of evaluation and adaptation?

Learning goes on long after the final bubble has been blackened. Are our schools helping us become learners for life?

And if that is the goal, how do we evaluate that is a way that is consistent and quantifiable, which is and should be required in public education?

But that is another question, and I really don't have the answer to that one. I'm open to suggestions.

1 comment:

Hobbit said...

I agree w/your Dad about knowing where to find things being important. Also, you have it right in saying one needs to be able to tell the value of the information so found.

I firmly believe that one cannot have too many reference books. I also like to read more than one view on a subject (if I am interested in it to begin with).

I do no know whether school talk me to think or turned me into a life-long learner. But I know I like to read -- and THAT I got from school.