Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Organizing Knowledge

Most students came to me unable to fix themselves in space or in time. They had little idea of what the world looked like beyond their neighborhood and their school. They could not point to Maine on a world map, or to their town on a map of Maine. Neither did they have much idea of world and national events during the lives of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors which shaped their families and the culture into which they’d been born.

It took me a while to realize what an impediment those deficits were. I had a curriculum to deliver and try as I might, results of my labors were sporadic at best. Information I delivered went in one ear and out the other because there was no context, no net, no web in students’ minds onto which it might attach. Some did have those contexts. They comprehended everything and progressed. Most, however, did not.

My first target was geographic ignorance, so I passed out maps of the world with no labels anywhere. Depicted were continents and the blue water surrounding them. On the continents were tannish mountain ranges and blue rivers. That’s all. Next I passed out a list of names — continents, mountains, rivers, seas, bays, gulfs, straits, channels, deserts, isthmuses — about one hundred fifty of the earth’s most important physical features. Their task was to find them and label them the same way cartographers did on the atlases in the back of their textbooks. They had to find and label each, then print the name on a horizontal plane except when labeling rivers and mountain ranges. Most of them gasped.

“Get to it,” I said. “You’ll be tested the end of next week. I’ll pass out the same blank map and a list of fifty places randomly selected from that one hundred fifty that you must label correctly without looking at your atlas.

“Which ones will be on the test?” they asked.

“I’m not telling. You’ll see when I pass it out.” We drilled in class for about ten days and played various map games. Ultimately most did fairly well on the test. Those who didn’t were allowed to take it again until they did. They had begun building a physical context — a net between their ears. To their surprise, they actually enjoyed it.

Then came a respite, after which came another blank world map with another list of one hundred fifty countries and major cities. They had to label each and outline political borders between countries (which were already lightly drawn), and locate cities with a dot. Then came more drill, more games, and another test. Again, most did fairly well.

The goal was for each student to be able to conjure up the world map in their mind’s eye whenever they heard one of the three hundred places mentioned — then see exactly where in the world it was. Standing before a pull-down world map they would need less than five seconds to point to it. For the rest of their lives, whenever they heard something about one of those places, there was a framework in their minds to which it might stick before it went out the other ear. It was a way to begin organizing knowledge.

After that we’d take another break from map drills, but only for a month or so. Then I’d pass out a blank map of the United States and another list of one hundred fifty place names — and they’d do the same drills. Then came another blank USA map and they were tasked with finding all fifty states, all fifty capitals, and dozens of other major cities. After appropriate intervals would come blank maps of Europe and the Middle East. For the last several years of my career, I was determined that no student would leave my class geographically ignorant. Some did anyway, but not many.

Every day we’re bombarded with information from electronic media in our pockets, in our living rooms, in the car. Most of it doesn’t stick in our minds because far too many Americans are like my students were. They cannot fix themselves in space or time. For them there’s only here and now. Ask them when the Civil War was fought and they cannot answer. World War I? Forget it. Even World War II is hazy in America’s collective mind. When they hear of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), can they point to either Iraq or Syria? I doubt it. North Korea? Iran? Probably not. 

All during my thirty-six-year teaching career, America’s access to information increased manyfold while our ability to retain and make sense that information went in the other direction. Worse, it appears that decline is accelerating. Why? There’s no construct, no context in which to arrange global information so it can even be understood, much less acted upon.


Brian said...

Hey, this no fun....I agree with everything!

Nice column.

Anonymous said...

Student anecdotes...in what grade/age range?
It can be kinda tough between the first exposure to globes and pull down maps,
when borders shift, countries and territories come and go.
Other bits that were addling were references to "American" events the occurred before
"American" was America.

Sami Gay said...

Hey, this no fun....I agree with everything!

LOL. Yes, thank you Captain Obvious. I guess even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and again.

Though I would disagree with the "great column" comment. A great column shouldn't need to be littered with Facebook memes.

Jared said...

This is right on the money, Tom. As a former teacher myself (25 years middle school science and math), I've been there. Your photo and reference to the zombie apocalypse is completely appropriate. My grand children come to visit and they're not here! They're lost in their tiny-screen-electron-world, both in my living room or any restaurant. They do what they can to stay with their friends. They're oblivious to their immediate surroundings not to mention their global position or where the hell is Maine?. Zombies indeed.