Education Reform and the Perils of False Dichotomies

Tonight I was perusing my #edchat Twitter feed, and someone posted the following: “It is not what students know, it’s how they apply what they know.” I think I understand what this person was getting at with this comment. I think he was trying to say that students need to have knowledge (i.e. facts), but they also need to learn how to use that information in applicable ways and transfer that information to other areas. If all they have is the knowledge, but they don’t know how to use it, it’s rather pointless knowledge. This is all well and good, and I would completely agree. In fact, I’ve written on this topic previously.

The problem, I think, is that some people are becoming so enamored with application that they really do take the first part of the tweet at its literal meaning. They really do think that it doesn’t matter what students know as long as they know something that they can then apply or use in some way. Under this schema, all knowledge becomes relative; no knowledge is more meaningful or worthy of learning than other knowledge. Indeed, when I questioned the person who tweeted the above comment and asked if some knowledge was more valuable than other knowledge, he replied, “Good question…not sure.”

Since he didn’t know, let me be blunt and give my answer: it is wrong to place all knowledge on a level playing field. Doing so arises from a belief in a false dichotomy between knowledge and application. Being able to apply knowledge is important, but the content and quality of the knowledge one applies is equally important. Sometimes I worry that focusing too much on application to the exclusion of any real focus on the quality of the knowledge being applied obscures this. For instance, let’s take my field of study: history. Would anyone argue that knowing about the War of Jenkins’ Ear is of equal value to knowing about World War II so long as one can apply what they know? People can know a lot of useless information, and they can even know how to apply lots of useless information. But is that what we want? Kids with great application skills but nothing in their brains worthy of being applied? Kids who haven’t been told that some knowledge is more useful than other knowledge, and therefore, kids who can’t tell the difference themselves?

I am all for education reform and change, which you know if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts. I do get frustrated with education reformers who pose either/or propositions that are based on false dichotomies. By all means, focus on application, but don’t forget that some knowledge is more worthy of being learned and applied than other knowledge.

This isn’t the only place I see this kind of false dichotomy in education circles. They really are everywhere once you start to look. How about direct instruction or student-centered instruction? Or what about classical learning or 21st-century learning? I’ve got a suggestion. Let’s find a way to do both.



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