My 8-year-old daughter recently became frustrated as she struggled with an assignment that asked her to memorize the location and spelling of all 50 states.
“Why do I even need to memorize this?” she complained. “I can just Google the location and spelling of any state whenever I need it.”
I paused for a moment, not entirely sure how to answer the question. She was right. She could Google this information; but there is a greater value to knowing the whereabouts of America’s 50 states. Would she know, instinctively, when it was worth the effort to Google something like the location of a state?
I replied, “Anna, what if someone told you that Montana was located next to North Dakota. Would you believe them and simply take what they were saying as truth? Are you going to Google (i.e., doubt) anything anyone ever says to you?”
She stared back at me, understanding that relying on Google to determine all facts from fiction quickly goes awry. Google is useful for some things, but isn’t practical for all matters.
The question of course goes deeper than something as simple and easily answerable as geography. It becomes much trickier when we are asked to discern “real” from “fake” in areas as fuzzy as public sentiment, portrayals of historical events, and conclusions reached by a confluence of research studies.
Just Google It
How do I help my daughter to ask meaningful questions, seek multiple sources of truth, and acknowledge the real answer, ambiguous as it may be?
I suppose the conundrum is better phrased this way: How will my daughter know when a simple Google search is sufficient? When will she need to seek multiple sources and doubt even her own understanding?
At Yale University, my undergraduate alma mater, there was a popular slogan that read, “Yale doesn’t teach you what to think; Yale teaches you how to think.”
That premise is critical in today’s media environment, because rather than accepting what we are told, we need to teach our children to think critically about how to process the information that they hear.
Early Foundations of Knowledge
If we prioritize our children’s ability think critically, then we need to embed the proper building blocks in their earliest education. While they may seem passé and pedestrian, the basics of literacy and memorization are as paramount as ever.
At Istation, the education technology company where I work, we believe that the fundamentals of critical thinking begin with literacy. With the foundations of reading comes logic, memorization, conceptual thinking, and imagination.
UNESCO writes in its Education for All Global Monitoring Report, “it is widely reckoned that, in modern societies, ‘literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community’ (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12).”
Alongside literacy come the basics of memorization. Memorizing the location of all 50 states may not count as true “critical thinking,” but it forms a building block of knowledge that allows far more challenging questions to be asked. Even the skill of memorization frees up other parts of the brain for more advanced processing.
The Guardian suggests that “memorising facts and lists can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving.” Effectively, we can draw on what we have memorized to create and grapple with more complex topics. For example, my daughter can use her knowledge of the geographical location of the states to begin to estimate if it would take longer to drive from Dallas, Texas, to Denver, Colorado, or to Portland, Maine.
Once one can read and retain knowledge, one begins to gain the skill of writing. Writing allows a person to express her own thoughts on a topic. We become more than just consumers of information; we become organizers of thoughts and ideas. If our writing resonates with others, we gain the important skill of influence.
At Last: The Messy Truth
For my 8-year-old, most truths remain simple. Eight times eight is 64, and Austin is the state capital of Texas.
As adults, real meaning and authentic truth become much more challenging to discern. What I hope for my daughter and for our nation’s children is that they learn how to think critically about the information that is given to them; that they understand the limitations of Google; and that they can embrace a narrative that is not one-sided but multi-dimensional.
In our family, we fully embrace the basics of reading and memorization. We read not just from one author, or one publication, or one geography, but try to embrace both our historical narratives and current events through the lens of multiple sources.
For my daughter, I will continue to encourage what may seem like “basic” skills of reading and memorization. It is not that I want or expect her to consider that a complete education; quite to the contrary: it is through the building blocks of reading and memorization that we begin to be able to question greater truths, recognize inconsistencies, compare disparate ideas and pursue deeper meaning.