In the last post I introduced what is essentially my own understanding of what I’m calling ‘frameworks’ of foundational knowledge. They may well be the same thing as schema from cognitive psychology; I’m only avoiding that term because I think it refers to something more, and something more technically specific, than what I’m speaking about there.
What other foundational frameworks might there be?
Kings and queens might be one for history. Rivers and/or mountain ranges might also help with physical geography. Grammar might be one for English. The periodic table might be one for chemistry. A collection of twenty fundamental formulae might serve for physics?
Do we really want to go back to having kids memorise lists of kings and queens and dates of their reign… ?
A sense of place
I’m not a royalist by any stretch… so admitting that I might have been wrong, and maybe there was something to all this ‘dates of kings and queens’ business is not easy for me. It’s obviously an idea that is still distasteful for others as well.
Here’s the reason for it though: they may serve well to people growing up in the UK as a framework for all other historical events from the last thousand years. If you can connect a group of historical events together with the reign of a particular monarch then you start to build up an idea of what Britain during that time period looked like. With that in place, any new event can be easily linked to that same monarch, adds to that mental image, and so very quickly builds greater storage strength for the memory.
Here’s the bit I was always missing: the kings and queens themselves might well be arbitrary. There may be some particularly important people to know about, such as Henry VIII and the reformation of the UK, or Elizabeth I and her speech ahead of engaging the Spanish Armada, or King John and the Magna Carta – but beyond these, the totality of ‘dates of kings and queens’ would only serve as a framework onto which all other historical knowledge could be scaffolded.
In this sense, learning these is not about right-wing conservatism; it’s not about learning all about all the kings and queens, because ‘monarchy is important,’ but rather just a good framework for scaffolding on other historical knowledge. The sceptical might fear a trojan horse here, in which case I would just encourage them to come up with their own framework that would serve the same role equally well, then we can talk about going with that instead.
For now, take a look at how one museum I visited earlier in the year opted to arrange its timelines:
There was no other mention of kings and queens anywhere in any of the text in the museum that I noticed. The actual kings and queens themselves were utterly irrelevant, they were just being used by the museum to try to attach things that might be unfamiliar to a framework, to give them a sense of place in time.
You could use Prime Ministers, but they change more frequently – meaning more to memorise; the granularity isn’t quite right – and they cover only a shallow period from recent centuries; the scope is insufficient.
A sense of scale
Kings and queens don’t do much pre-1066, though, so perhaps something else is needed for before then? And what about so-called Deep History? Anything anthropomorphic is utterly useless on that scale, so geological time periods maybe – at only 22 of them, it makes 195 countries seem like nothing. On the other hand, if we’re never to study anything taking place in most of those periods would they struggle to develop and retain any meaning? Would this end up closer to the picture people have in their minds when they say things like ‘rote learning’? – even if it is not rote by definition. Or does that make a case to learn a little something about each, or some of those time periods, in much the same way that we learn a little something more about some, but not all of the countries? Should fundamental frameworks of this kind guide our curriculum content? Or not?
What about periods of time categorised by intellectual or artistic thought as another historical framework? Classical, Dark Age, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Enlightenment, Romantic, Modern, Post-Modern?
What about scale of the universe? Do you know how far way the moon is? The sun? Pluto? Our nearest star – in both LY and miles, for comparison with Sun and Pluto? The diameter of the Milky Way? The distance to the next galaxy? The number of stars in a galaxy like ours? The number of galaxies in the universe? If we don’t know these things (and I don’t have a complete knowledge of all of these, incidentally) then how can we have any real grasp of the scale of the universe and our place in it?
Do you know how long homo-sapiens have been around for? How about the duration of what we consider ‘history,’ as opposed to ‘pre-history’? What about the dinosaurs, how long ago did they roam the Earth, for how long, when did they die? How old is the Earth? How old is the universe? You could Google any of these facts right now, but if you do, I can almost guarantee you’ll have forgotten them again by tomorrow. If you’ve forgotten them, if they’re not in your own mind, then how can you have any sense of the scale of time, and our place within it?
Again, to my shame I do not have answers to all of those questions I just posed, but, I do not see that as being ‘okay’. I do not see it as not mattering, because I’ve survived this long without that exact knowledge. I actually see that as something I need to rectify as quickly as I’m able.
Apparently an African proverb – I have not fact checked this
If you focussed your initial study of chemistry around the periodic table, in tandem with memorising the whole thing as sarcastically suggested here:
Might that actually profoundly aid learning? I wrote before about how memorising poems was the missing link that meant I was finally able to understand and appreciate them. It seems silly on the surface; surely memorisation is a rote and meaningless activity? Yet in order to memorise you have to invest time, effort and thought, which in all turn lead to deeper understanding.
I’m seriously thinking about taking this one on, and seeing what effect it has on my understanding of chemistry. I’ve had a look at the Memrise courses currently available, but none of them structure the table the way I think it needs to be done. The countries and capitals course structured everything around the continents, which helped me to gain a sense of what was where, but all the courses currently available structure the periodic table in order of atomic number, whereas it’s the groupings of the table that relate the elements to one another and give them their properties. One course did group by Group Number, but speaking again about granularity, I feel like this is too fine grain. I suspect the better groupings first go around are things like ‘noble gases,’ ‘transition metals,’ ‘other non-metals’ etc. as shown here:
With this in mind, I would like to suggest a friendly challenge, and I’ll do so in the next post.
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Again, an interesting post. If I was to learn the Periodic Table, I would learn down the groups, and along the first series (which anchors all the main elements). You are right about the properties, they are similar down the groups. This information would help in the study of Chemistry, but I’m not sure how it would help in general – at least not in the way the frameworks for history or geography would?
I was thinking about this the other day, as one of my friends pointed out that, essentially (and obviously), we all have gaps in knowledge. Having read history, for example, his knowledge of mathematics and science is limited to non-existent.
I’m in two minds as to the problems this causes. My first reaction was akin to your comment above, essentially that it’s less limiting to be missing out on scientific knowledge – one can still engage in the cultural and political conversations of our time without it. As you put it: “This information would help in the study of Chemistry, but I’m not sure how it would help in general – at least not in the way the frameworks for history or geography would?”
On the other hand I started to think about Cummings point in his epic post here:
Where he points out the limitations in government/management caused by a lack of appreciation of things like power-laws. From there I thought about all the marketing and politicking that easily mislead due to a lack of appreciation of statistics, and that’s before we even get into things such as legal judgements!
So while perhaps the cultural ignorance might be less palpable if your knowledge of science and mathematics is more limited, it might yet be the case that something real, and important, is being lost even in every day life as a consequence of scientific illiteracy – you just don’t know what you don’t know.
I suppose this brings us somewhat back to the initial conceit: that we can’t know what we’ll need to know, so let’s try to put together the best, broad curriculum that we can for everyone.
If we’ve already made the decision that knowledge of chemistry is something that we want for every citizen, then let’s engage in activities that will support that knowledge/understanding – which as you suggested, the periodic table committed to memory might do…
I just found your blog! This topic is close to my heart as a teacher and parent. I learned all the countries/capitals of the world with my son when he was quite small. It has served as an excellent framework for attaching all kinds of information over the years. We tackled the periodic table a couple of years ago (he was probably 12 at the time). These took far less time to do than I would have suspected. One of the ideas from cognitive science is that one has to become aware of something and pay attention to it before they can really “intake” it as new knowledge. Knowing these frameworks means that students notice and pay attention when these terms do come up randomly and thus allows them to build on it. In your post on geography you spoke of Nuku’Alofa. A student who’s never seen the word before will skim right over it or perhaps pause to think how weird it looks but certainly isn’t likely to look it up and retain that knowledge. Someone who recognizes that it’s the capital of Tonga, an island, part of Oceania, near Australia has enough background knowledge stored in long term memory that their working memory isn’t overloaded and they can actually focus on taking in the new information that they are reading.
As a teacher I am frustrated by students lack of effort/willingness to memorize/retain information. How can education speak of the importance of background knowledge and yet be so anti-memorization? If you haven’t remembered something and aren’t able to retrieve it when you need it, you haven’t learned anything!
I wonder if it’s because people are training kids to memorise the wrong things…?
I don’t have much experience outside of mathematics teaching, but I ran workshop with teachers of… pretty much every subject, a few weeks ago. There was broad acceptance of what I was saying, yet the feeling was that we already *do* try to cram kids with knowledge and get them to memorise things for exams, and it’s stale, and lifeless, and meaningless, and pointless.
They’re right, as well. I’ve seen science teachers, for example, focus on having kids memorise a vast repertoire of terminology and such. So what if the mistakes here are in what has been chosen… or when the focus takes place?
Maybe waiting until exam years is a problem, that the process should begin from much earlier on. Where I’ve done that (Year 9 onwards) in maths, it’s paid back huge dividends in Year 10.
On the other hand perhaps it’s the choices of knowledge to be memorised – perhaps they need to fit together as coherent frameworks…?
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.
Indeed the process should start lower with more low stakes testing of basic facts. I also think word problems and the like need to be removed from the Year 1 – 3 curriculum at least. What is the point when children are still learning to read or read fluently? That would relieve us of about 50 lessons are year which could be spent on understanding grouping but then memorising the times tables. It could be done for a few times tables each year and build on the ones already learnt. No amount of explaining will make you faster at recall only memorising will!!
Oh and having the Kings and Queens as reference points is no bad thing – there is a song on horrible histories about it!!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuRECu-ZV2g Sorry I couldn’t find the original!!
Hi Kris, you can read my poem as being written with an ironic wink, rather than as a literal comment if you like. 😉 I love history but my brain doesn’t retain dates very well. History is still fun for me, though. I love that stuff.