David Brooks on Wisdom

In a recent column, David Brooks gently criticizes a new school’s approach to education that aims to respond to the out-of-date nature of many classrooms, but in the process throws out most of the good that schools do.

I love his summary of the learning process: Life skills are important and relating goes hand in hand with knowledge, but fact acquisition matters too:

If we want to produce wise people, what are the stages that produce it? First, there is basic factual acquisition. You have to know what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era. Research shows that students with a concrete level of core knowledge are better at remembering advanced facts and concepts as they go along.

Second, there is pattern formation, linking facts together in meaningful ways. This can be done by a good lecturer, through class discussion, through unconscious processing or by going over and over a challenging text until it clicks in your head.

Third, there is mental reformation. At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.

At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate, to come up with new theses, challenge others’ theses and be challenged in turn.

Finally after living with this sort of knowledge for years, exposing it to the rigors of reality, wisdom dawns. Wisdom is a hard-earned intuitive awareness of how things will flow. Wisdom is playful. The wise person loves to share, and cajole and guide and wonder at what she doesn’t know.

This is so true. From my own limited experience, memorizing facts–if they really sink in–is actually hugely helpful and provides the legos with which to build a wall of understanding. Without the basics building block, there is nothing to build; there is no water to turn the water wheels of the mind.

Schools are certainly not perfect, and we shouldn’t think we can’t improve them. Rote learning has its drawbacks, as does sitting in a seat all day. But basic fact acquisition will always be a key first step to deep learning and critical thinking. No reform effort should ever forget that (including Common Core!)

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