An example of educational anti-intellectualism

I’ve got to stop blogging quite so much, but I couldn’t let this pass without comment.

One would expect Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, to be plugged into and more or less represent the latest academic trends in education technology.  If so, I’m a bit scared.

I came across Prof. Wheeler’s blog post from yesterday, “Content as curriculum?” If I had wanted to create a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, repeating the usual logical howlers as if they were somehow deeply persuasive. While I’ve already debunked a lot of this elsewhere, I thought it would be instructive to see that I have not, in fact, exaggerated in my characterization of the anti-intellectualism of some educationists.

Wheeler’s post is so interesting and provocative, I’m going to go through line-by-line.

I think it’s about time we reconsidered the way curricula in schools are presented. The tired, just in case model of curriculum just doesn’t make sense anymore. Content is still very much king in schools, because ‘content as curriculum’ is easy and cost effective to deliver, and that is what most governments require and impose.

“Curriculum” is a very slippery term.  Wheeler here appears to mean “whatever can be taught.” Later, he later brings out a distinction, familiar to philosophers, between declarative knowledge (knowledge that, “I know that 2+2=4”) and procedural knowledge (knowledge how, “I know how to ride a bicycle”). Wheeler’s main thesis seems to be that schools should concentrate on teaching procedural knowledge much more and declarative knowledge even less. So we can unpack the title of the blog post, “Content as curriculum?”: he is skeptical that “content,” or stuff that students might gain declarative knowledge of, should be the focus of the “curriculum,” or what is taught.  The curriculum, he seems to maintain, should be practice, skills–not content.

In other words, if you strip away the edu-speak, Wheeler is saying that students should be taught a lot less declarative knowledge. Since this is what we ordinarily mean by “knowledge,” we can put it even more simply: Wheeler is opposed to teachers imparting knowledge.

Now, this might sound like a ridiculous oversimplification of Wheeler’s views. But if so, that’s not my fault, it’s Wheeler’s. If you read his blog post, you’ll see that I’m not being uncharitable in my interpretation. I’m simply explaining what he means. If there were any doubts or question that he really means this, he makes it all too clear in the next paragraphs, as we’ll see.

But most teachers will tell you it’s not the best approach.

I’m sure that teachers would be surprised to learn that their peers believe it’s “not the best approach” to use “content,” or what can be learned as declarative knowledge, as the “curriculum.” All I can say is, I hope he’s wrong. To be sure, there are some teachers out there who have great contempt for books and what I would call substantial learning. But surely they are still a minority.

When I went to school I was required to attend classes in mathematics, English language and literature, science (physics, biology, chemistry), history, geography, music, art, Religious Education, craft and design, home economics, German and French – all just in case I might need them later in life. With the exception of a few subjects, my schooling didn’t make that much sense to me.

…and it appears that how these traditional subjects are useful to him “later in life” still doesn’t make sense to him.  I’ll enlighten him below.

Occasionally I hear someone saying “I’m glad I took Latin at school”, and then arguing that it helped them to discover the name of a fish they caught whilst out angling on holiday. Well, knowing that thalassoma bifasciatum is a blue-headed wrasse may be wonderful for one’s self esteem. It may impress your friends during a pub quiz, but it won’t get you a job…. and was it really worth all those hours learning how to conjugate amo, amas, amat simply to be able to one day identify a strange fish, when all you need to do in the digital mobile age is Google it?

Here, finally, we get the hint of an argument: the reason that Latin, and presumably all those other subjects, are not “needed” in the curriculum is that we can Google that information. Actual knowledge of those subjects is not needed–because we’ve got Google.

But does he really mean that all those subjects he listed, and Latin, are not needed?

The question is, how much do children now need to learn in school that is knowledge based? Do children really need to know what a phrasal verb is, or that William Shakespeare died in 1616 when what they really need to be able to do is write a coherent and convincing job application or construct a relevant CV? We call this type of learning declarative knowledge, because it is ‘knowing that’ – in other words, the learning of facts. Yet, in a post-modernist world where all knowledge has become increasingly mutable and open to challenge, facts go quickly out of date. I was taught in school that there are nine planets orbiting the sun. Today it appears that Pluto is no longer a planet (but for me he will always be a cartoon dog). Is it Myanmar or Burma? I was told by my geography teacher it was Burma. Then she was right, now she is wrong. Just when did Mao Tse-tung change his name to Mao Zedong? And is the atom still the smallest object known to humankind? No. Now we have something called quantum foam. Apparently it’s great for holding the universe together but pretty useless in a wet shave. You see, facts are changing all the time, and very little appears to remain concrete. So why are teachers wasting their own time, and that of the kids, teaching them facts which in a few years time may be utterly out of date?

Yep. He means it.

Now, look, I don’t know how many times I need to repeat the arguments against this sort of nonsense–I think I did a pretty good job in “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age“–but it won’t hurt to rehearse a few of them briefly:

1. Much of the declarative knowledge that matters, and which requires time and energy to learn, is not of the sort that can be gained by looking it up in Google.  You can read some quick analysis of the causes of the Great Depression, but you won’t really know them until you’ve studied the subject.

2. Most accepted knowledge doesn’t change, even over a lifetime.  Fine, Pluto’s no longer a planet.  The others are.  99% of what we knew about the solar system 50 years ago has not been disconfirmed.  Most new knowledge adds detail; it does not render old knowledge useless.  (Besides, the professor would not be able to cite this as an example if he had not learned that Pluto was a planet; he couldn’t be an articulate, plugged-in thinker without his “useless” declarative knowledge, which he could count on other educated people sharing.)

3. Understanding an answer usually requires substantial background knowledge.  Suppose I want to know when Shakespeare died, and I find out that it is 1616.  But suppose I haven’t memorized any dates.  Then this information, “1616,” means absolutely nothing whatsoever to me.  It is, at best, a meaningless piece of trivia to me.  Only if I have studied enough history, and yes, memorized enough dates, will 1616 begin to have some significance to me.  I wonder if Wheeler thinks the date doesn’t matter, period, because Shakespeare doesn’t matter, period. After all, if that date isn’t important, is any important?

4. Most vocabulary is learned in context of copious reading.  If schools start teaching “procedural knowledge” instead of “declarative knowledge,” then the vocabulary and conceptual stockpile of students will be so poor that they can’t understand the answers they Google.  (They certainly wouldn’t be able to understand this blog post.)

5. Finally, declarative knowledge is its own reward.  Understanding the universe is a joy in itself, one of the deepest and most important available to us.   You are a cretin if this point means nothing to you.

Mainly what I think is interesting here is that this is a professor of education, and he is espousing flat-out, pure, unadulterated anti-intellectualism. An educator opposed to teaching knowledge–it’s like a chemist opposed to chemicals–a philosopher opposed to thinking. Beyond the sheer madness of the thing, just look at how simple-minded the argument is, and from what appears to be a rather distinguished academic. I actually find this rather sobering and alarming, as I said. It’s one thing to encounter such sentiments in academic jargon, with sensible hedging and qualifications, or made by callow, unreflective students; it’s another to encounter them in a heartfelt blog post in which, clearly, a serious theorist is airing some of his deeply-held views in forceful language.

Wheeler goes on:

Should we not instead be maximising school contact time by teaching skills, competencies, literacies? After all, it is the ability to work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions that will be the common currency in the world of future work. Being able to think critically and create a professional network will be the core competencies of the 21st Century knowledge worker. Knowing how – or procedural knowledge – will be a greater asset for most young people. You see, the world of work is in constant change, and that change is accelerating.

There was never a time in history in which “ability to work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions” were not significant advantages in the work world.  These are not new features.

Another point that seems to be completely lost on those who make such sophomoric arguments as the above is that having a deep well of conceptual understanding is itself absolutely necessary to the ability to “work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions.”  It’s even more important for the ability to “think critically.”  This is why philosophy graduates famously excel in the business world.  They are trained to think through problems.  Difficult problem solving requires abstract thinking, and the only way to train a person to think effectively and abstractly is by tackling such difficult academic subjects as science, history, classic literature, and philosophy.  Besides, the skills and knowledge learned in these subjects frequent provide a needed edge in fields that require a mathematician’s accuracy, a historian’s eye to background, a litterateur’s or psychologist’s grasp of human nature, or a philosopher’s clarity of thought.

Besides, not only has declarative knowledge mostly not changed, procedural knowledge changes much faster–which is probably part of the reason it was not taught in schools, for a long time, apart from a few classes.  The specific skills for the work world were, and largely still are, learned on the job.  So let’s see, which would have been better for me to learn back in 1985, when I was 17: all the ins and outs of WordPerfect and BASIC, or U.S. History?  There should be no question at all: what I learned about history will remain more or less the same, subject to a few corrections; skills in WordPerfect and BASIC are not longer needed.

My 16 year old son has just embarked on training to become a games designer. If, when I was his age I had told my careers teacher that I wanted to be a games designer, he would have asked me whether I wanted to make cricket bats or footballs. Jobs are appearing that didn’t exist even a year or two ago. Other jobs that people expected to be in for life are disappearing or gone forever. Ask the gas mantel fitters or VHS repair technicians. Ask the tin miners, the lamplighters or the typewriter repair people. Er, sorry you can’t ask them. They don’t exist anymore.

I don’t quite understand Wheeler’s point here.  His 16-year-old son is training to become a games designer, at an age when Wheeler and I were spending our time learning “mathematics, English language and literature, science (physics, biology, chemistry), history, geography, music, art,” etc.  By contrast, his son’s early training in games design is supposed to help him in twenty or thirty years–when games will be exactly the same as they are today?  I thought the point was that things like game design change very fast.  Well, I don’t know his circumstances, but my guess is that his son would be better off learning the more abstract, relatively unchanging kind of knowledge, providing a foundation, or scaffolding, that will make it easier to learn particular, changeable things later, as well as communicate more effectively with other well-educated people.  Here I hint at another argument for declarative knowledge, E.D. Hirsch’s: it provides us an absolutely essential common culture, which makes it possible for Wheeler and I to understand each other, at least as well as we do.  Ask entrepreneurs you know and they’ll tell you: the ability to communicate quickly, precisely, and in general effectively is a deeply important ability to have in a employee.  You don’t often gain that ability on the job; you develop it, or not, by studying various modes of communication.

Why do some teachers still provide children with answers when all the answers are out there on the Web? Contemporary pedagogy is only effective if there is a clear understanding of the power and efficacy of the tools that are available. Shakespeare may well have died in 1616, but surely anyone can look this up on Wikipedia if and when they need to find out for themselves? …

Well, here’s another puzzling thing to say.  Teachers don’t “provide children with answers.”  If they are doing their jobs properly, they are getting children to learn and understand the answers (and the questions).  A teacher is not a search engine.  Moreover, it’s unconscionable that a trainer of teachers would pretend that what teachers do can be done by a search engine.

Get them using the digital tools they are familiar with to go find the knowledge they are unfamiliar with. After all, these are the tools they carry around with them all the time, and these are the tools they will be using when they enter the world of work. And these are the tools that will mould them into independent learners in preparation for challenging times ahead.

“Digital tools” will “mould them into independent learners”?  I’ve heard a lot of things about digital tools, but never that they would make an independent learner out of a student.

If you want to make an independent learner, you have to get them, at a minimum, interested in the world around them–in all of its glorious aspects, preferably, including natural, social, political, mathematical, geographical, philosophical, and so forth.  If they aren’t interested in those rich, fascinating aspects of the world–and why should they be, if their teachers dismiss such knowledge as “useless”?–they’ll no doubt only be interested in the easiest-to-digest entertainment pablum.  Why think they’ll get very interested in how to build software if they haven’t been led to be curious about the facts about how software, or the world generally, works?  Surely Wheeler’s son has learned some facts that have provided essential scaffolding for his interest in computer programming.

I don’t think digital tools, and the mere ability to use them, will make curious, independent learners out of people all by themselves.  Most of all, we need exposure to the content of thought, concerning the natural world and our place in it; then we need to be given the freedom to seek out the answers on our own time.  I don’t support the idea of spoon-feeding information–that’s what poor teachers do, as well as search engines, come to think of it.  I think students should be challenged to read deeply and reflect on what they read.  That’s the tried and true way to make a curious, independent learner.

We need to move with the times, and many schools are still lagging woefully behind the current needs of society. Why do we compartmentalise our subjects in silos? When will we begin to realise that all subjects have overlaps and commonalities, and children need to understand these overlaps to obtain a clear and full picture of their world. Without holistic forms of education, no-one is going to make the link between science and maths, or understand how art or music have influenced history. Some schools such as Albany Senior High School in Auckland are already breaking down the silos and supporting learning spaces where students can switch quickly between ‘subjects’ across the curriculum. Other schools are beginning to realise that ICT is not a subject and shouldn’t be taught, but is best placed as embedded across the entire curriculum.

To answer Wheeler’s no doubt rhetorical question, we study various special subjects independently for the reason that there is no other efficient way to learn those subjects.  To be sure, it makes sense to learn the humanities all together, in historical order.  Other subjects might, perhaps, be usefully combined.  But if you make a big melange of it, you’ll find that the subjects simply can’t be mastered nearly as quickly.  You have to spend a significant amount of time on a subject before the neurons really start firing.  If you’re always skipping around from this to that, on the basis of rough analogies and not more substantive conceptual relationships (as become clear when you study anything systematically), you never get the extremely significant advantages that accrue from studying things that are conceptually closely related at about the same time.

But if, like Wheeler, you don’t think that declarative knowledge of academic subjects is especially important, and you can’t grasp what importance abstract conceptual dependencies might have for enhancing understanding, communication, and curiosity, then, no.  You might not think there’s any point in focusing on particular subjects.

So, no, “moving with the times” does not require that our children arrive at adulthood as ignoramuses.

It’s about time we all woke up and realised that the world around us is changing, and schools need to change too. After all, the school still remains the first and most important place to train and prepare young people for work. If we don’t get it right in school, we are storing up huge problems for the future. Education is not life and death. It’s much more important than that.

Didn’t Wheeler ever learn plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose in his French class?  The pace of change has been increasing, no doubt.  But the world has been changing fairly quickly for the last 150 years, and one of the classic arguments for liberal arts education–something that I can’t imagine Wheeler actually endorsing, given what he’s written–is precisely that the liberal arts enable us to deal with such changes by giving us a solid foundation, a mature (not to say perfect or unchanging) comprehension of the natural and social world.  They also give us the ability to think and communicate more deeply and accurately about new and changing things.

A student well educated in the liberal arts, who has “memorized”–and really understood–a boatload of “mere facts,” will be far better prepared to meet the changes of the coming century than someone who is well trained in the use of digital technology to talk at random about things of which he has been left tragically ignorant.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started,,,, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

45 Responses to "An example of educational anti-intellectualism"
  1. Reply Andy Knill December 14, 2011 02:04 am

    Wow an interesting read to start the day and a well versed argument. Both types of knowledge are helpful and encouraging an enquiring mind requires both.

  2. Reply Rob Spence December 14, 2011 04:15 am

    Thanks for this. I agree that it is deeply disturbing when people in positions of influence espouse such utterly vacuous views. Their arguments are always based on the false dichotomy between skills and knowledge, as if they were completely independent. I don’t see how you can develop skills without knowledge. And I hate the way that the purpose of education is reduced to the most basic functions – how to fill in a job application, to use his example.

  3. Reply Lawrie December 14, 2011 04:48 am

    Finally someone see’s through this!

  4. Reply sjf December 14, 2011 05:18 am

    Great post, but can we clarify that Mr Wheeler is not a Professor of Education. He is Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in Information & Computer Technology, School of Education (Faculty of Health, Education and Society).

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 14, 2011 12:27 pm

      “Professor of Education” isn’t his title, but “learning technology” is certainly a subfield of education. If you look at the rest of his bio, his focus is clearly technology in education.

      Besides, do you think his views are really out of the ordinary for education professors?

      • Reply sjf December 14, 2011 15:15 pm

        There are many education professors who actually do research and can put together an argument based on evidence. This individual appears to do neither, but is an expert in many areas, see for some interesting claims about the OER practice around the world.

  5. Reply Larry Sanger December 14, 2011 12:28 pm

    Thanks for your responses, all!

  6. Reply GPC December 14, 2011 15:02 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, knowledge of physics and math is really important to become a game designer or computer animator. The programs Wheeler’s son is using for design will likely go out of date. I assume this is what Wheeler would refer to as “knowing how.” However, the kinds of foundational knowledge required likely won’t.

    An understanding of the arts is understandably important in creative fields. Knowing some Latin and mythology can be really helpful too. They may help designers come up with interesting names, places and characters. The kinds of information you “need” can be pulled from so many different subject areas, it’s really impossible to say what is or isn’t necessary.

    I know a high schooler who is also interested in this field but due to poor math skills and having never studied physics, it’s unlikely that he would ever finish a degree. We should be really scared that children who are going to enter a “knowledge” economy are being thought far less knowledge.

  7. Reply David Baume December 14, 2011 15:27 pm

    Of course we need knowledge and skills. In fact they’re inseparable. Much early AI work failed because it turns out that, to function intelligently, you have to know stuff. Knowing a subject, any subject, surely means being able to do the subject, whether it’s French or Philosophy or Accountancy? If knowing stuff only meant remembering stuff and not doing things with stuff (I do
    know some longer words but it’s fun just using short ones for a while – fewer places to hide) then the intellectual world would become a giant rolling quiz show.
    This wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the horrible “learn it then use it” pedagogy that comes from over-revering declarative knowledge. Most people learn through doing stuff, asking good questions about what they do and see. Facts and ideas are tools for doing things with, not jewels to hoard and polish and admire. So much education fails because it insists on answering questions that the student hasn’t asked and doesn’t much care about. Get them asking good questions – the way they do outside school – and they’ll learn what and how and why faster than you can teach them. Start with the students, not with the stuff. You’ll be a more effective teacher, and enjoy work a lot more. It’s easier to get stuff into a jar if the lid’s off.IT’S HARD TO TYPE THIS MUCH ON AN IPHONE

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 14, 2011 16:21 pm

      I agree that knowledge and skills are inseparable. I’m making the point that academic, “declarative” knowledge is very important in itself, not merely for its vocational worth or because it helps learn “practical skills.” I reject the assumption, common among so many educators these days, that a subject finds its pedagogical justification only in any obvious practical application.

      “Knowing a subject, any subject, surely means being able to do the subject,” say you. Well, perhaps. But this can’t be used as justification for replacing academic study with more practical studies, because “doing” academic subjects is frequently a thoroughly academic affair. Philosophers talk about “doing” philosophy. This involves talking and writing–typical academic activities. Similarly, no doubt, with “doing” history. Science, of course, requires acquaintance with experimentation; I’m all in favor of that.

      “Most people learn through doing stuff, asking good questions about what they do and see.” That sounds awfully plausible. Yes, indeed, people learn through doing stuff. If I cook a meal, I learn how to cook. But I do not necessarily learn mathematics or biology or literature, at least in any efficient fashion. Similarly, you can learn how to do a job by doing the job (that’s called “on-the-job training”), but that won’t necessarily give you more abstract, academic knowledge.

      “Facts and ideas are tools for doing things with, not jewels to hoard and polish and admire.” What a weird idea of what declarative knowledge is all about. Gaining knowledge is not about bragging rights. It’s not collecting. If you think that, then you really don’t get it. It’s about gaining an ever broader, ever deeper comprehension of how the world you live in works. The more you learn, the more every subject seems more and more like an old friend.

      But insofar as knowledge has a practical application, just bear in mind that the practical application is not always straightforward or obvious. It’s not usually like being able to identify things that come into your field of view by their Latin names. It’s more usually like applying patterns of thinking learned through reading difficult books to brand new problems (even problems that will make you money if you solve).

      “So much education fails because it insists on answering questions that the student hasn’t asked and doesn’t much care about.” True. As a homeschooler, I think it’s important that students should be motivated to learn what they are assigned. The main way to motivate them, I’ve discovered, is to begin with some easy, attention-grabbing, fascinating entree into the subject, which gives them a few mental hooks to hang further study on. When I do it right, I’m able to interest my 5-year-old boy in pretty much anything. Latest interest, as of two days ago: the Vikings.

      “Get them asking good questions – the way they do outside school” — What garbage. It’s true that there are some schools that discourage asking questions. But my son is encouraged to ask questions, and in my best classes and in college, of course the most fascinating questions were asked. In the work world, by contrast, I encountered relatively little curiosity.

      “Start with the students, not with the stuff.” Now, wait a minute. This is really a different debate altogether. If your point is that we should not have a set curriculum, such an “unschooling” position is completely consistent with a focus on declarative knowledge and academics, unless you allow the students to focus most of their time on things that have little or no academic component. But someone who agreed with me might agree with “start with the students, not with the stuff (on a set curriculum,” with the only further stipulation that the students have to choose primarily from among topics of “declarative knowledge.”

  8. Reply Noeline December 14, 2011 15:35 pm

    It must be nice to be so certain that one kind of knowledge is more important than another. What is missing from your critique is any mention of learning how to think: that is neither procedural nor declarative.What Wheeler argued, essentially, is that a focus on CONTENT to the detriment of process, does not equip students to become good thinkers: instead, they remain consumers of information. Just as Wikipedia information is updated regularly, so too does other content knowledge change. What counts as knowledge is also culturally bound, not international. Knowing specific dates is also highly culturally specific. For example, I’m much more interested in Shakespeare’s take on the human condition than I am in any date associated with him – for me, the date is immaterial- the ideas are central. So, while you may declare that knowing dates is important, you cannot assume everyone else holds that to be a crucial part of one’s own cultural knowledge. Personally, I would much rather know where to find that out, than have to recall it. I suspect the main issue may centre on attempts to generalise from specifics.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 16, 2011 11:14 am

      Why do you have to assume, uncharitably, that I am merely dogmatic about “what is so important”? I would not be having an earnest discussion with people I disagree with, if I were so dogmatic. If I were really so dogmatic and certain, I would not feel a need to engage with those I disagree with. I think I can learn something, when presented with a superior argument. Can you?

      My thesis is not that declarative knowledge is “more important” than procedural knowledge. I am saying that it is the proper focus (not the exclusive focus, but the overriding, main focus) of primary and secondary education, at least.

      You apparently did not read my critique carefully, if you think there was no mention of “learning how to think.” I don’t think Wheeler argued that “a focus on CONTENT to the detriment of process, does not equip students to become good thinkers: instead, they remain consumers of information/.” You might be projecting your own views on his post. He doesn’t mention learning how to think, critical thinking, or any such thing. He only talks about making students curious and independent learners (and that, I did address).

      Obviously, “a focus on content” is largely orthogonal to whether students are properly taught to think. In some pedagogies–I’ve read that schools in Brazil were (maybe still are) this way–learning is all about reading texts and exactly reproducing their contents on exams and in essays. In a liberal arts education, such as I favor, students are required to read texts slowly, often multiple times, with an eye to answering deep questions that challenge the text. They also write essays about the text, and engage in oral dialogue and debate about it and the facts or ideas it expresses.

      I don’t know about you, but Wheeler seems to take a different approach in his latest. In this naive, idealistic pedagogy, teachers and students simply talk to each other, apparently unencumbered by any books or other reading (although they might reflect on practical experiences, no doubt), and magically their interaction transforms them into sophisticated thinkers. This is naive, as I said, because students quite simply lack the background in terms of such things as basic facts and vocabulary, difficult scientific analysis, historically important argument, and so forth, to arrive at sophisticated habits of thinking. The ability to think is not merely a skill to be practiced by conversation. It is intimately bound up with content–not because it is important to reproduce somebody else’s thoughts, but because you cannot begin to grasp the concepts, problems, and main outlines of the subject well enough to be able to discuss it intelligently until you have studied the subject. They aren’t called “bull sessions” for nothing. You can’t get a proper education through bull sessions.

      The idea that studying subjects in depth makes students into mere “consumers of information,” mindless drones devoted to robotic memorization, completely belies an adequate grasp of the nature of liberal education. I recommend that you read John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman has a devasting critique of the notion that education is about the mere amassing of information. Of course, I agree with him 100%. But believe me, Newman would not agree with Wheeler’s latest couple of posts.

      “Knowing specific dates is also highly culturally specific.” What does this even mean? That people disagree about the importance of learning dates in different cultures? Yeah–so? I agree that Shakespeare’s plays are more important than biographical facts about his life, of course.

  9. Reply An Educated Educator December 14, 2011 15:43 pm

    While I agree that knowledge is more than just the procedural ways of knowing that Wheeler supports, I also take issue with Sanger’s position on factual knowledge. Although Sanger also references the need for students to use factual knowledge in a more conceptual way, there are still some holes in both of these positions.

    Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues (1956), well established experts in this area, posited that there are four types of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive. Later, Anderson and Krathwohl (2000) expanded on Bloom’s foundational work by expanding and revising the taxonomy of cognitive processes that people need to be able to access these four types of knowledge in increasingly complex and novel ways.

    The fourth — and not coincidentally the most overlooked — type of knowledge, metacognitive or reflective knowledge, is not mentioned in either argument. I would argue that in order to be truly knowledgeable, one must know how he/she learned and acquired any new knowledge and reflect on the meaning of that knowledge in the grander scope of both an individual discipline and across fields of study.

    I think it’s interesting (and perhaps ironic) that both Wheeler and Sanger take positions about knowledge without perusing the available literature, or published knowledge, on the same subject.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 14, 2011 16:22 pm

      I’ll have to reply more later, but one point is easy to respond to: my Ph.D. concentration was epistemology. So, yeah, I’ve read a fair bit of the literature about knowledge.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 16, 2011 11:19 am

      Well, failing to use some theorist’s jargon in formulating my answer doesn’t mean much, does it? I didn’t speak of “reflective knowledge,” but I didn’t speak of many other subjects, either. That doesn’t mean that I am particularly opposed to having students reflect (introspect) a little. Generally, I am in favor of it–of course, doing it too much, as I did when I was much younger, is a waste of time.

  10. Reply Sensemaking artifacts « Connectivism December 14, 2011 16:10 pm

    […] coherence or subject views aren’t “duplicated” by students. Of course some basic knowledge elements exist, but the way we come to know them in networks is different from the process of coming to know them […]

  11. Reply GPC December 14, 2011 18:21 pm

    It always annoys me when people use the dates of someone’s death or a battle as an example of the “pointlessness” of learning knowledge. I’m a big advocate of teaching knowledge and this isn’t something I see as hugely important. It is good to have an approximate date to put things in their historical context but I don’t think that’s what most people who advocate knowledge are talking about.

    I would ask is it a good idea for students to know how the human body works, even if they may never have a health related career? Is it important for a future voter to understand what life was like for workers before unionization and labor laws when choosing a candidate to vote for? Is it important for a future voter to know about other countries, so they can be informed about foreign policy decisions? Is it a good idea for students to understand basic economic principles in an increasingly globalized world? Is it a good idea for students to read novels that have lead to social change when we still have plenty of social problems? The list could go on and on.

    People like Wheeler set up a strawman using things like dates to undermine the importance of knowledge. But knowledge is far more than dates. It’s the information students actually need to become problem solvers, critical thinkers, voters, and even googlers. After all, you need a base of knowledge to make sense of all the information you find.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 14, 2011 20:25 pm

      Excellent point!

      Another thing to say here is that, if you value historical knowledge at all–and you are a fool if you don’t–then dates are simply indispensable. A date isn’t just a fact to memorize, it puts an event in a relationship to other events, without which you can’t know causality, cultural influences, and much else. It is impossible to know history in much depth without a reasonably good grasp of a lot of dates.

  12. Reply Allan Quartly December 14, 2011 22:44 pm

    Its interesting that the date isn’t important in itself but the timeline is important. So the skill of putting a date into perspective has greater value than the date itself. Draw the timeline, stick it up on the wall and the content is transformed, no longer facts in isolation. Now what’s more important, the dates or the process of building the timeline?

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 15, 2011 08:23 am

      The most important thing, and the reason for all such efforts, is the student’s grasp of the timeline. There are many ways there. But you can’t make sense of a timeline itself without knowing the narratives it summarizes–a timeline is a very poor timeline by itself. The bottom line is that if you want to know history, the most efficient way is to read history.

      • Reply Allan Quartly December 16, 2011 01:26 am

        But now the discussion slips from facts to a narrative. Timelines are a good start but now we need to discuss the relationships between events, building knowledge as we go. We can leave the dates behind now without losing knowledge and refer back to them if we need to look wider.

        • Reply Larry Sanger December 16, 2011 10:32 am

          I agree that telling the stories of history is one of the best ways to teach history, and I also agree that one can do so without using very many dates. Although, for example in the story of Columbus’ voyages to the New World, they can help to let the student know how far apart in time the events were. But you say we need only “refer back to [the dates] if we need to look wider.” Exactly right. And frequently we want to “zoom out” and take a comprehensive view of history, in order to understand the interrelationships of important events and broad trends. Dates are essential for describing those relationships, to see what came before and what came after, how close in time things were, and in general do all this on a large scale, without telling and retelling the narratives. The whole point is that dates are essential for summarizing and explaining history.

  13. Reply GJB December 15, 2011 14:19 pm

    To me it seems that to a certain degree, Knowledge is the fruit of learning ‘how to’. If I want to learn how to play the Guitar, I must first learn the facts of the instrument, the importance of notes, sequence and timing etc. I have to find a way of learning these things and I’ll discover how I do that best by how effectively I learn them. So sure, it’s important to empower children with skills, but surely the only way you can tell if they’ve got the skills is if they’ve reaped knowledge by using them and only teachers can impart this wisdom specifically and related to what they are learning. I can teach my son to use a word processor but unless he has something meaningful to write I won’t know he’s any good!

    I tend to agree with much of what has been said, in so much that both learning skills and knowledge are invaluable. I particularly liked your point Larry, regarding learning subjects independently. Going back to the musical instrument analogy, imagine if a child wanted to learn an instrument, say a guitar. It would take a long time if the child was put in a room with all the instruments and was left to try all the instruments as he felt motivated (given he would presumably want to learn the guitar mainly, but anyone who has tried learning an instrument will testify it can become difficult and easy to be distracted), however, given a disciplined approach to learning that one instrument would not only speed up the child’s progress on the Guitar but would also speed up any future learning on other instruments. The same principle applies to subject learning. you not ONLY learn the facts of the subject (foundation for using your skills) but also the most effective way of learning other subjects.

  14. Reply sjf December 17, 2011 15:34 pm

    It is a shame that Mr Wheeler has not responded apart from an another vacuous blog post about [one sided] conversations as curriculum

    No doubt the troops are being marshalled, you have to love the tweets about ‘keeping powder dry’ etc.

    It would appear a huge salvo of a response is about to appear, with a willing band of sycophants ready to act as a supporting cast to this member of the shining Twitterati.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 17, 2011 15:44 pm

      He said on his blog (in the discussion of his latest) that he’s working on a reply but has been busy with other responsibilities.

  15. Reply Mark Smithers December 18, 2011 20:37 pm

    I find the level of vitriol in this series of comments quite odd. I also observe that the most vitriolic comments seem to come from those who prefer not to share their identity. I have no idea what that is all about other than traditional trolling.

    No doubt I will be accused of being a sycophant.

    Anyway, Steve Wheeler’s response is published now so you can read it for yourself.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 18, 2011 20:42 pm

      That’s vitriol? It’s tame compared to what I experienced in debates re Wikipedia. But I do generally find that the world of education is quite a bit more polite than geekdom.

  16. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler December 19, 2011 00:48 am

    […] employ some jargon used by epistemologists, and by Steve Wheeler in a recent blog post that I responded to–”declarative […]

  17. Reply Glenn Kantz December 19, 2011 05:41 am

    I have been following the back and forth between you and Prof. Wheeler and have been intrigued.

    Is it safe to say that knowing facts is still important, but simply the teaching of facts is a bit redundant, since facts are much more accessible than ever before? Shouldn’t our teaching focus on ways to access and process those facts, Google or otherwise?

    • Reply GPC December 20, 2011 21:34 pm


      I think teaching of facts has become far more important. Students need to be able to make sense of all the information they can find on Google. This isn’t something that happens magically. Access to knowledge isn’t of very much use if you can’t understand most of what you find. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has a book called “Why Don’t Students Like School” which explains why learning factual knowledge is a absolute necessity, whether we like it or not.

  18. Reply learning December 19, 2011 08:04 am

    Having read both blog posts, I cannot help but have the idea that your intellectualization has gone a bit far this time. You seemed to have missed the point, you attack Mr Wheelers examples of somewhat unecessary teachings elements in schools, which to be fair he has a point. Unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds is at 1.02 million in the UK, maybe ask them what their views are of their school experiences such as which of Henry of the eigths wives got executed compared with how to actually get a job or for that matter how to look after ones self on a day to day basis rather then the production line curriculum that we have in our classrooms for the past 100+ years.

    • Reply GPC December 20, 2011 21:28 pm

      I would think that the young people who know the most are the least likely to be unemployed. It’s the young people who learned little of anything, including history, at school who tend to not have jobs. It’s highly unlikely that the fuzzy kind of education that Wheeler proposes would change the fate of the unemployed. His ideas would create far more poorly educated young people who would join the ranks of the unemployable. America was the most innovative country on Earth when we had kind of traditional education system that Wheeler opposes. After decades of educational reform we are rapidly dropping in the innovation ranking.

  19. Reply The Failure of Citizendium « UK Web Focus December 20, 2011 11:49 am

    […] post on Content as Curriculum? having being alerted to it by Larry Sanger’s post on An example of educational anti-intellectualism to which Steve provided a riposte in which Steve argued the need to Play the ball, not the […]

  20. Reply when we speak about inquiry based learning < Richard Olsen December 20, 2011 17:56 pm

    […] Sanger has recently written a piece on why content is still important and why inquiry-based learning is folly. I’m not sure if […]

  21. Reply Stuart Buck January 3, 2012 20:30 pm

    Excellent piece. I wrote something similar in response to a Seth Godin blog post decrying memorization a while back:

  22. Reply carl gombrich January 30, 2012 18:17 pm

    Larry, surely you and Steve are both right. You are right that one cannot really learn anything without facts which act as pegs to hang other things on. But Steve is also right to point out that ‘the infinite library’ is taking learning – all of our learning – to new places and we need to reflect this in teaching how to use and navigate this library. (I doubt I really need to repeat this to a web knowledge innovator).

    I am with you about history dates and multiplication tables, for example. In order to start to negotiate the world wide web we need to pass on some structure and clear, big picture stuff to our children or others we are responsible for teaching. But how far does this go? Clearly many, many bright kids – let alone adult learners – once they have good guidelines (yes, facts) can get a lot more interesting details from Khan, Wikipedia, your stuff, online forums and who knows what else, than they can from sitting through classes, at desks, listening to one teacher tell them why they think the Roman empire declined?

    In some ways this sort of ‘new’ teaching requires a return to great generalists, teachers imbued with a deep kind of ‘liberal arts’ education, I think you might call it, (Bildung, the Viennese might have called it) who are equipped to stake out the ground for their students and map the big picture. But once these children have the map, they will need to know the sorts of web 2.0 skills Steve wants to promote in order to learn better and colour in the map in an optimal way.

    There are also diffences here, I think, between maths and sciences and the humanities (web is still not good at communicating maths/science problems – though finally catching up). But that’s for another post.

  23. Reply Drill Classes? Really – in the age of web 2.0? | Carl Gombrich February 20, 2012 18:08 pm

    […] learning facts over the value of learning method in the age of web 2.0 (See Larry’s comments here and Steve’s remarks here). Another way to characterise this is a debate over whether to teach […]

  24. Reply Stuart Buck February 28, 2012 10:03 am

    Check out what this prominent educator says about teaching kids science, etc.:

    • Reply Larry Sanger February 28, 2012 10:37 am

      Fascinating! I’ll reply if I get a chance!

  25. Reply Quora March 28, 2012 11:08 am

    Is it hubris and a sign of cognitive biases running rampant for adults to believe that they can teach their children in a more effective manner than trained professionals?…

    Saying that something is hubristic implies that nemesis is on its way: one is so unwarranted in one’s self-confidence that one will inevitably receive one’s comeuppance for this sin of pride, it’s only a matter of time. The question then is whether …

  26. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Why is spaced repetition not better known? May 8, 2012 11:08 am

    […] even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn’t change the […]

  27. Reply The Future Part 6: Does New Technology Mean We Don’t Need to Know Anything? « Scenes From The Battleground July 25, 2012 03:07 am

    […] also replied to the blogpost from Steve Wheeler (the one I have been repeatedly quoting)  in the strongest […]

  28. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Some unpopular opinions May 18, 2015 23:43 pm

    […] most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we […]

  29. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Some unpopular opinions | The Echo Chamber May 26, 2015 05:15 am

    […] most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This […]

  30. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don’t use in everyday life? | The Echo Chamber October 2, 2016 01:11 am

    […] to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here’s another representative sample and […]

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