It’s a idea that even has been turned into game shows: how much do you remember from what you learned in school. Quite often the answer will be: not that much. And this is than used as an argument to show how much of what we learn in school is obsolete.
In a new article for The Atlantic Daniel Willingham examines this idea and, guess what: adults remember more of what they learned in school than they think they do. Read the full article to know why. I want to focus on the most important message, more specific the consequences for education. Willingham argues that the curriculum – what people need to learn – is very important but often overlooked element in education:
Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ. The question is whether it makes people smarter by building mental horsepower, by adding to students’ database of knowledge and skills, or some of each component. Recent research published in Psychology and Aging shows that people who stay in school for a longer part of their lives are no faster at simple mental judgements (like line comparison) than their less-schooled counterparts. Other research published in Psychological Science shows that high-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower. Instead, schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.
This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks.
The aforementioned research also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime.
I agree wholeheartedly with Willingham in stressing the importance of the curriculum and how it’s sequenced.