Now they want to poison knowledge

We all know that the creationists have been busily trying to redefine science so that they can call Bible-based faith that the earth is 6000 years old “science”, while empirical research and validated theories are relabeled “dogma”. But now they’re going to reach deeper into the educational process and redefine “knowledge”.

While most of us think that it is ignorance that needs to be stamped out, advocates of Kentucky’s new unapproved and forcibly implemented science standards are targeting … knowledge.

Just take a gander at the responses to my opinion piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal which were published on Monday. According to Brad Matthews, former director of curriculum and assessment for the Jefferson County Public Schools, one reason we need these unapproved and forcibly implement standards is to extirpate that bane of all modern permissivist educators: memorization.

"Science education has moved away from the memorization of many facts," says Matthews, "and toward understanding how the laws and principles of science are applied."

That’s right: students have memorized too many facts. Their heads are bursting with scientific facts. There is not enough room in their tiny little brains for an understanding of how these facts should be applied because all the room us currently taken up by scientific facts which these students have memorized. There is simply no space in those fact-crowded little heads for scientific concepts.

The solution is obvious to people like Matthews: clear all that knowledge out of there so they will be able to apply the knowledge they will no longer have under these standards.

Knowledge is now the rote memorization of “facts”, and educators who try to get students to understand concepts are now enemies of knowledge. I’m sure the taskmasters who run madrassas are now nodding their heads in complete agreement.

Brad Matthews’ statement is entirely reasonable, and does not warrant one iota of the hyperbole Cothran applies to it. The worst classes in the world are the ones where we sit students down and force them to memorize strings of data and then regurgitate them onto an exam. That does not imply that kids shouldn’t have to master some basic rote skills; sorry, gang, knowing your times tables is still important as a basic life skill.

But you still have to understand how to apply that knowledge. For instance, in cell biology, I expect my students to memorize the structure of a peptide bond (that’s not hard) and the basic properties of the classes of amino acids (only slightly harder), and we talk about some basic chemical reactions, like hydrolysis. They should be able to figure out how you break a peptide bond, without memorizing all the pairwise combinations of amino acids and how they’re split chemically. Once you know the general principle you can apply it everywhere!

Also, if you’re learning science, you have to learn how to fit new facts into an existing body of knowledge, and memorization won’t cut it.

What these guys are really afraid of is that deep ideas like evolution are natural inferences from all the data and facts floating around in science — if you learn how to think, you’ll inevitably figure out that creationism is bullshit, evolution actually works and makes sense, and that all those religious cranks have been lying to us. So in defense they want to truncate education: memorize what we already know (and even that they will tightly circumscribe), but don’t you dare teach kids how to think.


  1. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Kids thinking, not just repeating slogans as in Brave New World? Gee, sounds great to me.

  2. says

    Haven’t we been having this argument since, like, the 1960s? When people like PZ and me were on the receiving end? Geez, it’s discouraging to see the zombie of the 19th century hanging on into the 21st, still trying to eat brains.

  3. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    That does not imply that kids shouldn’t have to master some basic rote skills; sorry, gang, knowing your times tables is still important as a basic life skill.

    There is push from the other side as well to get rid of any fact-based knowledge at all. That also doesn’t work. Hypotheses explain facts. Students need to understand the relationship.

  4. Robert B. says

    Actually, the basic life skill is a quick and accurate mastery of multiplication facts. Memorizing them is one way but isn’t required. If you can do things like “three times eight is twenty-four, so six times eight is forty-eight” fast enough, you can memorize just the easy facts and figure out the hard ones when you need them, as quickly and surely as the memorizers remember them. Honestly everyone does both – I’ve never seen a student memorize the 0 and 1 times tables, while everyone ends up memorizing the 2s and 10s.

  5. futurechemist says

    I teach organic chemistry and every semester I get students complaining about how the course is so hard because of the ridiculous amount of memorization it requires. It makes be want to tear my hair out because when you approach it properly there’s actually very little memorization required. It’s an almost entirely conceptual course and rather than try to memorize hundreds of named reactions, it’s so much easier to learn the basic families of reactions and apply them to individual cases (e.g. hydrolysis of a peptide is pretty much the same reaction as saponification of a triglyceride or a Grignard reaction or dozens of other examples). I tell my students that they should be memorizing as little as possible in favor of understanding.

    My least favorite college science class by far was biochemistry, where 1 of the exam questions was “draw the Krebs cycle including ATP and cofactors and enzyme names. So basically the question was “Who can memorize the figure from the textbook 10 minutes before the exam?”

    Same logic for more math based courses. Why bother memorizing formulas when you can take 30 seconds to derive them as needed? There’s a bajillion equations of kinematics, but it’s all just algebraic manipulation of each other or a bit of basic calculus.

  6. tbtabby says

    This article reminds me of a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin is taking a history test. He answers the question correctly, then writes that he’s only memorized the information long enough to answer the question, and will now forget it forever, because all he’s really learned is how to cynically manipulate the system. I’d recommend that Mr. Matthews take that story to heart, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he knows EXACTLY what his lesson plan would do.

  7. says

    This is a cross-post from the [Lounge] thread:

    More distressing news on the education front, this time from Kansas:

    A Kansas-based group that “promotes the religious rights of parents, children, and taxpayers” is challenging the state’s science standards because they include the teaching of evolution, which the group claims is a religion and therefore should be excluded from science class.

    As the AP reports, Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) claims that public schools “promote a ‘non-theistic religious worldview’ by allowing only ‘materialistic’ or ‘atheistic’ explanations to scientific questions.” The group argues that by teaching evolution “the state would be ‘indoctrinating’ impressionable students in violation of the First Amendment.”

    COPE’s challenge [PDF] states that the teaching of evolution “amounts to an excessive government entanglement with religion” and violates the rights of Christian parents.

  8. alanuk says

    I could never remember things; so biology, chemistry, languages (including my own) were not for me. Multiplication tables were a nightmare. The last person that I ever met who actually used multiplication tables was our milkman – eventually he was issued with a hand-held computer that would calculate and print our weekly bill. Tables of logarithms and trigonometric functions, along with slide-rules, now only serve to amuse children.

    A proper understanding of 0 and 1 times tables is vital – from them all others can be derived. When I discovered binary numbers, I had at last a way to avoid those dreadful multiplication tables.

    Physics, I could cope with, a little calculus allowed me to derive those formulae that others had to learn by rote. The trouble with learning by rote is that you just finish up with a head full of rote.

    50 years on, and a degree in electrical engineering, I see that candidates are still expected to perform contortions in exams while applying Fleming’s rules of thumb. I would fail the question that asks what the nth finger represents. Likewise, mumbling mnemonics to get the colours of the rainbow in order – make each wavelength your own personal friend and you own the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

  9. Becca Stareyes says

    I remember my physics teachers taking that tactic — that if a formula or constant was important, we’d eventually have it memorized, and if not, we’d be better served in learning how to quickly find it. Either way, learning how to solve problems was seen as more important than memorizing things like 1/2mv^2. (Also harder to teach: most of my intro students have to be taught how to not use the list of formulas as a set of magic incantations for getting the right answer, which is part of understanding why the math works.)

    (I do a lot of math sans calculator so I have my times tables memorized, but even as a kid, I don’t think I ever set out to do it. On the other hand, I had a good memory and regular use of a fact would let me memorize it without special effort.

  10. Menyambal --- flinging the squaler says

    You need both memorization and understanding, really, but I favor understanding where the facts go as an aid to memorizing them. When I took Chemistry in college, I seldom did the homework exercises, but spent my time working out what the formulas meant. I’d take the tests and find I had to re-derive everything, but I could re-derive everything. I’d be the last one to finish, but I’d get the highest score. The stuff I used in later work I did memorize through use, and I can still work out the rest when needed.

    When I teach kids math now, I encourage them to remember each answer, and to see how this is just another way of saying that. Do not just do the homework and forget it.Sadly, teaching for the test is the way the classes are structured.

  11. CorvusCorax says

    futurechemist: Did we have the same biochemistry class? We had to memorize the entire glycolysis pathway, including chemical structures, cofactors, aerobic and anaerobic branches etc. Why we needed that info committed to memory, I’ll never know. I’m very good at applying principles, but not memorization, so I got to take that course twice!

  12. NitricAcid says

    In one of my first years of teaching, I started my nomenclature lecture by waxing poetical about systematic nomenclature, and how much more useful it was than blindly memorizing the names and formulas of every possible compound- just learn these simple rules, and you can name tens of thousands of compounds in far less time than it would take to memorize a hundred or so trivial names. The students replied with, “We have to *memorize* all that???”

    That was the same lecture in which I had a student say, “Why do we have to know what carbonate is? I’m from Saskatchewan- we don’t *have” carbonate in Saskatchewan!”

  13. A Masked Avenger says

    Coincidentally, I recently watched this TED talk about why our IQs today, by the standard of the original tests, would be about 130, and folks from those days, by our standard, would have an IQ of about 70.

    I’d hate to spoil it, since it’s so much worth watching! Please go watch it…

    The core claim Flynn makes is that we routinely deal with abstractions today which our grandparents did not. We’re more capable of certain kinds of moral reasoning, for example, because we take hypotheticals seriously. We can ask, “How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow with black skin?” Or, “How would you feel if tomorrow you found that white people were the former slaves, and black people the former masters who controlled access to the upper levels of society?”

    I can’t confirm or deny his hypothesis, but I can remark that my dad and granddad would greet such hypotheticals with scorn. It’s impossible to wake up a different color; therefore your thought experiment is asinine and serves no conceivable purpose.

    Apparently these fundies are incapable of embracing this brave new world of abstractions, and wish we could go back to memorizing names, dates, and periodic tables. Explanatory theories are just worthless daydreams, after all…