The myth of learning to learn

Too many teenagers – and adults – are under the impression that they don’t need to learn facts anymore. Ask them a question, and they can just look up the answer. It’s all right there on the internet.

Unfortunately, the idea that you can “learn to learn” and pick up facts on a need-to-know basis is totally misguided. As teachers, we need to correct this impression and help our students understand that becoming educated actually requires learning stuff.

According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, the idea that we can “outsource our memory” and free up our brains for other tasks by storing information digitally is gaining popularity. He quotes Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired, saying, “I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything.”

Sound like your students? They don’t know their friends’ phone numbers or birthdays; they don’t need to remember the route to school, work or the mall. Siri is always there to help.

So why would they want to memorize the names of the Axis powers or what is protected by the Bill of Rights? Why would they ever need to know the periodic table or the Pythagorean theorem?

The problem with “outsourcing memory” is that without information crowding our brains, we don’t think better. In fact, we can’t really think at all. The brain isn’t an operating system pre-programmed to pull out the files we request; it’s organic. Decades of research is showing that the human brain is like the rest of your body — it works better when it works often.

Any athlete knows that without intense practice, you can’t just pull out a killer tennis serve or perfect jump shot when you need one. Why would you be able to construct a mathematical proof or argue the ethics of physician-assisted suicide, if you haven’t built up knowledge and skill.

Neurological research has shown that the more you learn, the more neuron connections you develop in your brain, and the more you are capable of learning and reasoning. Think of your brain as a tree. When you learn stuff, you grow branches. On those branches, you can grow more and more small branches, as well as leaves. Every year, the branches get thicker and more robust. That’s learning.

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, the authors of Make it Stick, cite countless research studies that support this notion. “All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge,” they write.

In a humorous aside, they take on the Einstein quote that creativity is more important than knowledge: “You wouldn’t want to see that t-shirt on your neurosurgeon or on the captain who’s flying your plane across the Pacific.”

I’m not arguing for a back-to-the-basics approach where we force children to memorize arcane facts to the exclusion of anything else. Far from it – I’m actually kind of a minimalist when it comes to determining the core knowledge we all need to know.

What I am saying is that there is a point to building a foundation of knowledge. Children don’t need to memorize every political boundary, national capital, and body of water in the world. But we also can’t expect them to make sense of the world — politically, geographically, historically or economically – if they never learn any context.

When your students start asking “why do we need to know this?”, take a little time out for some meta-cognition this year. Use one of these books or countless other resources to help them understand how their brains work and why it’s so important to give them a workout.

Don’t let them convince you that they can always look it up later.