When children have all the information a click away, does having knowledge matter? By JULIE HENRY.
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School work, as we can all testify, entails “remembering stuff”. But in a world where facts are a click away - and where generative AI, such as ChatGPT, can supply a comprehensive essay nearly as quickly as it takes to recollect the aide memoire - why bother committing these facts to memory at all?

The cultural shift away from memorisation has, arguably, already begun; one international study found that 40 per cent of people automatically reach for Google before trying to remember information and a quarter forget the answer straight after reading it.

Generative AI’s ability to produce rapidly packaged knowledge is already being harnessed across education and work. Of course pupils still need to remember things to pass traditional exams but that demand aside, is the endeavour of committing knowledge to memory essentially pointless in a world where AI can do it for you?

Spoiler alert. ChatGPT isn’t the answer.

Not according to Dr Rebecca Gordon, from University College London’s Centre for Educational Neuroscience. “
Is memorising facts still important, even when you can Google and AI it? The simple answer is yes; it is very important, and for a number of reasons.”

Let’s take the example of learning the times tables.

“You don’t want to have to count two plus two on your fingers,” she says. “Instant recall acts as a foundation on which to build more complex knowledge, reducing your cognitive load. In calculations with numerous steps, if you have to use a calculator to work out what seven times four is, you are forced to pause to work out a side calculation while holding the main question in your head. Who wants to do that?”

Knowledge. It’s the basis for more complex thinking.

So, recall of embedded knowledge helps to reduce the demands on our limited working memory. It also gives us the foundational basis for more complex thinking.

But while learning and memorising information is necessary, it is not sufficient. If you only teach children the formula for mass without applying it, it is essentially meaningless

“When you use that formula to work out that ice is less dense than water, you realise that it is very important in environmental science,” Gordon continues. “Ice floats on water so it insulates the water underneath, which is important for life. You build onto that the impacts of climate change if the ice melts.”

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Metacognition and the critical thinking "endgame"

In the various education theories that trainee
teachers study, and which influence what goes on in the classroom, one of the most important questions has always been what constitutes “significant learning”.

“Students have to be able to memorise to some extent but what comes above that in most theories is comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creation,” says Dr Marguerite Müller, a lecturer in education and society at King’s College London. “On the one side is foundational knowledge and, in equal measure, we need application, engagement, critical thinking and integration - the idea that we can connect ideas, relate our learning to real life and think about how to advance our own process of learning.”

All these elements come together in the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is taught in many of the Nord Anglia Education schools worldwide. Through the Theory of Knowledge component of the IB Diploma, students are taught to think about how they gain knowledge, how it is interpreted, and how and why knowledge is used and manipulated. And at the heart of Nord Anglia’s educational approach is helping its students become critical thinkers.

For Andrew Lancaster, Principal of The British International School Shanghai, Puxi, critical thinking is the endgame.

“It’s not just about committing facts to long-term memory, although this is important for IGCSEs and the IB Diploma,” he says. “Equally important is understanding what you’ve learnt and the connections between banks of knowledge, the ability to research and work collaboratively and creatively, being a good communicator and developing evaluative skills.”

Also central to the IB is metacognition - an awareness and understanding of one’s own process of learning. Nord Anglia is busy leading new studies into metacognition to help its students understand how they learn best.

Dr Kate Erricker, part of the Nord Anglia team leading its research, explains.

“A student who is ‘metacognitive’ can draw from a toolkit of strategies so they’re able to understand complex information, structure and sequence tasks, connect the dots between sources of information, and respond creatively to make something new and original. When students are metacognitive, they find solutions rather than passively observing situations.”

“Our research is centred on helping students understand how developing their metacognition supports their growth – academically, socially and personally – so they’ll graduate with outstanding academic outcomes and also better understand themselves as learners. This last part is such an incredibly valuable skill for life - knowing how and why you learn best.”

Andrew Lancaster continues, “We’re supporting students to become independent learners, whether that's exploring how best to embed knowledge and remember things or what works best in group work or individual research. Students will have their preferred methods and teachers are supporting them and helping them to reflect; how did it work for you? What other strategies can we try?”

Lancaster also makes a strong case for the sheer love of learning and “knowing things”.

“There’s a real joy in that,” he says. “Children love to come home and tell their parents what they’ve learned in lessons, or relay to their teachers what they have mastered. I love that aspect of it and that is the classroom teacher’s craft - being able to harness that enthusiasm, energy and passion from young learners and take that forward and develop it in partnership with them.”

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Fake news or real news?

Growing these capabilities has never been more important than in the present era where young people face a 24/7 maelstrom of information - and misinformation.
“If I look at my own children and their process of learning, they’re bombarded with information day in and day out,” says Dr Müller. “I think all of us are increasingly jumping from one small piece of information to the next. It’s not like 20 years ago when you could sit and read a text for an hour.”

In this landscape, the question may be less about children’s ability to remember and more about the skills they need to evaluate the surfeit of information raining down on them - indeed on all of us. How do we sort through it? What is relevant and what is not? How do we recognise the difference between quantity and quality? 

Helping pupils to develop their “fake news detector” so they can become “thinking global citizens” is part of the Theory of Knowledge component at Nord Anglia’s St Andrews International School, Bangkok.

It’s not just about passing on the canon in any particular subject. If we want the world to be a better place students need to be engaged and able to use knowledge,” says Roo Stenning, Head of the High School at St Andrews. “When students see the front pages of newspapers and on one side, there’s a story about fires on the Greek Islands and on the other, there’s a story sayingmaybe this green stuff has gone a bit too far’, they need to realise that something is afoot and to think critically about it.”

According to Yasmin Nasif, Principal at Amman Academy in Jordan, knowledge and critical thinking go hand in hand and both are essential in a world where information is bottomless and often contradictory.

“Whatever information students are able to utilise from AI and search engines, it’ll mean nothing if they don’t really understand and remember the knowledge they’re learning. You can’t look up facts that you don’t know exist or assess information in a vacuum,” she says.

For her, the challenge is striking a balance between skills-based and content-driven learning to give students the transferable skills to actually make use of what they know. 

We’re looking at lean management in business, for example. We studied its application in the automotive industry but students will now be applying the
knowledge they have learnt in completely different contexts,” says Nasif.

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Agile learning. It’s a thing.

This “agile learning” that Nasif describes is what employers are looking for, according to Nigel Sullivan, Chief People and Sustainability Director at healthcare provider and insurer Bupa, where competency-based recruitment is the order of the day.

He fears that a general reliance on knowledge in education almost in isolation to skills is hampering students’ job prospects. 

“Being collaborative, working in a team, setting and achieving goals - all this is super important to employers,” he says. “They’re not interested in whether you know all the kings and queens of England. Who’ll benefit from you carrying around that information with you in life or in employment?”

Healthcare is clearly dependent on the knowledge of clinicians who have been trained in education systems around the world and Sullivan is clear about the need for “deep experts”: “You don’t want dentists poking things into people’s mouths who don’t know what they are doing,” he adds. But in other areas of its business, it needs recruits who can, more importantly, work in teams, think creatively, make decisions and be agile in their learning.

Knowledge, yes — but context and application are everything, which comes neatly back to what Nord Anglia’s schools champion. 

When Sullivan was at school, he was baffled by quadratic equations until he understood how they could be applied in science. In that light bulb moment, they were “no longer just numbers on a page with no meaning”. Similarly, his love of WB Yeats has been enhanced by learning about the political context in which his poetry was written. 

“It is this kind of exploration that develops the intellectual curiosity and reasoning that helps to solve problems,” he says, “not memorising lists of facts and buzz words in order to get marks in an exam.”

The challenge, then, is leveraging our knowledge-based education systems to foster the critical thinking skills that our students need - and that will be crucial in tackling the huge global concerns we are all facing.
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