New math. Digital literacy. Executive function. Soft skills. None of these things were “things” when we were in school. Education seemed straightforward to us. We were taught something, memorized it, shared it on the test and moved on to the next topic. Most of us had no clue as to how rules of language, math or science came to be. We accepted what we were taught. The end.
Fast forward to 2017… or even 2000. Life has changed. Yes, there are still things that are taught today that were taught when we were in elementary or middle school and will continue to be taught forever. We learned to read, to compute and to write. We all have to memorize facts and figures. However, some things have changed. Are we to teach children the skills needed to function in the world or do we need to teach them the concepts that build those skills? What will serve them in the long run?
There is no question that one of the best ways to be fast at math is to memorize math facts. There is also no question that if all we do is memorize, we will be lost when we try to apply a rule months or years after it has been taught. For example, how much time passed between the time you learned to determine the perimeter and area of a rectangle to the time you applied it to real life when figuring out how much fencing you needed for your yard, or how much carpet for the floor? Did you recall the formula? Did you need help from the person who sold you the materials? How dusty were those facts?
Concepts build a foundation for learning. Concepts promote thinking. As a teacher I loved helping children build this foundation. I regretted the fact that I was taught a rule rather than the reason for the rule. I relearned much of what I took for granted from my school days. Well-placed questions, lessons and activities allow children to build these concepts. They learn to question, to look for common aspects to a variety of ideas and to make connections in their learning. They learn from the past and apply it to future learning. They are building their knowledge rather than memorizing it.
It can be fun to recite something we memorized long ago, wondering why it is still stuck in our memory bank. In truth, even those memories are not easily accessed when needed. We need to build a solid foundation of interconnected facts, concepts and ideas in order to be served by our learning for years to come.