Why 'What' Is Where It's At

“Jamestown was founded in 1607! You’re off by three years!”

“We’ve had 44 Presidents! Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison …”

“How could you not know that sun bears are the smallest bears?”

These sentiments have all been hurled at me by someone under the age of 11.

That’s the nature of children. They are absorbent little sponges, and their fact-driven inquiry is natural. It remains remarkably immune to the latest educational theory circulating master’s degree programs throughout the country. Deploring this stage of thinking is misguided at best and condescending at worst.

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Why are so many educators convinced that their job is to teach kids “how” to think and not “what” to think? Perhaps it’s because they cannot place themselves in a child’s shoes. When “what to think” is spoken of in their adult lives, it means “an opinion or theory that they’ve arrived at after contemplating the facts.” They forget, though, that children do not yet know the facts — their questions before middle school are often “what to think” questions. Their “why” questions are more “Why is the sky blue?” and less, “Is our perception of the sky’s light blueness a foundational component of ‘color morality’? Would racism have been as rampant historically if the sky were russet? If so, why?”

Michigan has historically thrown a lot of money at early education, often with better PR than outcomes. Michigan’s low-income preschool programs are likely another dead end. Let’s not talk about the money for a second. Let’s talk about the fact that federal and state government invests billions in children’s cognitive futures when these same children often exhibit animist and egocentric thinking.  In laymen’s terms, many children before the age of 7 mistakenly think that if they fall down on the sidewalk, their tumble was caused by the sidewalk being mad at them. This isn’t something we should rush to fix, either — it’s simply how kids are when they’re little. 

Now let’s talk about the money. There is mounting proof that increasing school funding doesn’t necessarily improve school performance. Legislators, analysts and their ilk intent on raising school achievement channel millions of dollars into schools while consistently forgetting a critical factor: The children aren’t motivated by the increased investment. At that age, they take their existence, and their parents’ support of it, for granted.

Nor is increased investment going to improve learning results when teachers have only been taught to teach methods of learning, not concrete content. Education scholar E.D. Hirsch once said, “The unspoken — that is, relevant background knowledge — is absolutely crucial in reading a text.” As chairman of the English Department at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s, Hirsch conducted an experiment comparing two groups of college students. City Journal’s Sol Stern reported Hirsch’s findings:

“Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren.”

This building block of education used to be taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson had an idea for publicly funded schools in which the reading for the Primary School years is mostly history. He wrote in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1785, “Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.”

The Huffington Post reported in October on elementary school science education, or the lack thereof, in California. A study by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC-Berkeley analyzed data collected during the 2010-2011 academic year from teachers, principals and school administrators across California. It described the federal government’s pouring millions of dollars into incentivizing undergraduates to teach elementary-level science, technology, engineering and math. What struck me about the article was a throwaway sentence plugged deep into the piece: “Additionally, only about a third of elementary teachers feel very prepared to teach science.”

Something is seriously wrong when college-educated teachers don’t feel equipped to teach basic content to children[i]

This position is a controversial one. PBS’s “The NewsHour” reported in early June on the American Graduate initiative, whose stated purpose is to help improve high school graduation rates. In the video, one of the teachers says in frustration about his district’s goals, “The goal is not to teach them inquiry in my science classroom. It’s, there’s this fact you must memorize. It’s a fact that is [sic] isolation of everything else. Don’t worry about why it’s relevant. It doesn’t matter. Just learn this fact.”

When did facts become so disgusting to us? Theoretical inquiry is likely appropriate for most high school students — though I still have my doubts given this statistic — but hardly without the substantive support of the elementary and middle school years. Further, not everyone comes from the same background — it used to be assumed that the purpose of public education was the achievement of a common, essential knowledge. Where did that get lost?

The high school teacher’s point about an isolated fact is well-taken. At some point it is necessary to develop a relationship between separate facts. But this is separate from theory, and it is more essential to establish realities first. Kids want to know what to know. We should take advantage of this while we can.


Lindsey Dodge is assistant editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[i] The demand for content-heavy education abounds outside of academia. How else does one explain the runaway financial success of “The Great Courses” lecture series or Rosetta Stone? There is an undeniable, marketable thirst for knowledge.