I love analogies. So much so that I sometimes get into trouble for using them too frequently. Perhaps this is because I am also a painter, drawn to strong images that tell a story bigger than just themselves.
There is an ongoing debate in the world of education about the relative merits of the teaching of facts over the teaching of the skills involved in the manipulation of those facts. The growth of testing is a partial cause of this argument. One of the dangers of multiple choice standardized tests is that they can become very information heavy, requiring students to remember large swathes of factual knowledge or to perform automatic skill routines. To do well in these tests students need to know the parts of a flower, significant dates or the names of presidents and prime ministers, or they need to be able to load the required numbers into the multiplication or division machines in their heads and crank the handle, spitting out the right answers. We need tests that can be readily and cheaply graded and analyzed by computers . I think it is possible to design multiple choice tests that require creative, divergent thinking, but it isn’t easy and we don’t see too many of them.
As tests become more and more important to teachers and schools, we find curriculum gradually morphing to resemble the tests more and more closely. Teachers become more agitated as they find themselves required to focus on making sure their students remember the facts and the routines. Curriculum begins to serve the tests rather than the tests serving curriculum.
What’s wrong with this picture? Here’s where I want to resort to an analogy. A flour mill takes in grain, feeds it through grinding processes and produces flour. The process of milling cannot take place without the grain. Teaching our children how to think is analogous to the grinding process, making them able to mill the facts effectively and efficiently, to produce quality end products, namely worthwhile, well judged, reasonable, creative thoughts. But you can’t grind flour without grain and you can’t think without information to think about. The facts we teach our children are all the grist to the mill. They should never be seen as an end in themselves. Just as some grains make certain kinds of flours for specific different purposes, so too do we need to select the facts we teach to suit the purposes of our educational system. But grain without milling will produce nothing, and neither will the teaching of facts if we fail to teach children how to think effectively about those facts.
So let’s change our perspective and see the teaching of facts for what it really is – the provision of the essential raw materials for the teaching of thinking rather than an end in itself.