Education minister fails to decipher fact from fiction

Briar Lipson
4 December, 2019

Despite what Education Minister Chris Hipkins would have us believe, you cannot simply google everything.

Technology has undoubtedly transformed our ability to access information, but despite what Hipkins told Newshub, memory still matters.

When asked about the findings of research into Kiwis' general knowledge, he explained that he thinks schoolchildren should not concern themselves much with memorising information because "We have it at our fingertips now: the ability to look up any information we may wish to. The question that young people really need to turn their attention to is how do they decipher fact from fiction?"

If Hipkins had basic knowledge of cognitive science he would recognise the deep irony in this statement, itself a fiction he has bought because he lacks the knowledge to think critically about it.

Processes like problem-solving, critical thinking and "deciphering fact from fiction" are not generic. Essential though they are, these skills cannot be separated from background knowledge.

For example, thanks to background knowledge of the history of education, of research methods and statistics, I am reasonably well equipped to decipher fact from fiction in education contexts. However, tasked with doing the same in an engineering or medical context I would flounder.

Knowledge in long-term memory is not a nice-to-have. Rather, it is an integral part of mental processing without which our working memories (which can hold only about four items at a time) become quickly overloaded.

As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham puts it: "thinking well requires knowing facts ... critical thinking processes ... are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory".

It would be hard to find a better circular argument than that put forward by Hipkins.

Yet, he is far from alone in making it.

Whetu Cormick, president of the New Zealand Principals Federation, recently made a similarly troubling statement. When asked for comment on New Zealand's highly flexible national curriculum, Cormick reasoned that it was right to let teachers choose topics that interest their students because they could always find out other facts on the internet.

Cormick then went on to illustrate his point: "For a child in Bluff who might be interested in muttonbirds, they are not going to be interested in the fact that there are seven continents in the world".

It is an extraordinary statement, which should send a chill down the spines of all parents of school-age children in New Zealand.

And yet, Cormick's example was not a blunder. Far from it. Rather, both the minister and Cormick are only passing on the folklores they have been fed by New Zealand's progressive educational elite. And these fables, which also underpin our national curriculum, rely on highly problematic assumptions.

For example, despite what Cormick implies, schools do not exist to cater to the necessarily limited, and often passing preferences of students. Schools exist to serve the interests of children, but only in the broadest, long-term, life-interest sense of that word.

Secondly, the part of New Zealand you happen to grow up in should have limited influence over what you learn.

In the past (and still in most other countries) the national curriculum detailed the core of knowledge all children would study. However, instead of providing this safety-net of knowledge, the New Zealand Curriculum dramatically overplays the principle of localism by suggesting that children in Papakura need fundamentally different knowledge from those in Picton.

They do not.

They may need more practice, more discipline or more motivation. Their teachers may use different hooks into the knowledge, but students across New Zealand do not need fundamentally different knowledge. If something is worth knowing in Kerikeri, the chances are it is worth knowing in Canterbury, too. If knowledge is powerful in Whangārei it will be powerful in Feilding too.

Of course, teachers can and should add local flavour, but the core knowledge all Kiwis need – of science, maths, social studies and culture – is the same. And the danger of giving teachers total discretion is it permits poor quality and provincialism.

So next time you google something (as most of us do), remember how much knowledge you already have that enables you to understand and think critically about what you are reading, then pity the child whose school administers Hipkins' knowledge-lite approach. That child, just like the minister, will too easily fall prey to fictions, folklores and hyperbole.


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