EDU 6526: Concept Attainment vs. Factual Memorization

Learning about Concept Attainment this week shines light on the large umbrella of Knowledge, and begs the question: what exactly is knowledge composed of? In order to be knowledgable, is it enough to memorize facts and be able to recite them on command? The concept attainment model clearly responds that no, the knowing of facts is not enough. It is what we do with these facts – how we connect them, dissect them, rearrange them and evaluate them – where true knowledge begins to develop. Bloom’s Taxonomy confirms this idea by placing Evaluative questions at the top of his famous triangle, as the highest level of learning possible.

Indeed, of all of the Information Processing systems explored thus far, only one has relied on the mere acquisition of factual knowledge. Memorization is an important ability for some specific fields of knowledge, and tools such as the link-work system and mnemonic devices aid significantly in the unglamorous, but sometimes necessary task of ingesting facts. However, every other model presented within the Information Processing family has dealt in concepts over facts. Synectics uses metaphors and similes to induce innovative thinking around entire concepts, while the Picture Word Induction Model (Figure 1) seeks to apply labels to single pictures in order to branch off into countless learnable concepts. It is clear that the path of education is pointed towards the acquisition of concepts and ideas to further critical thinking, rather than the rote transfer of facts.

PWIM pictures

Figure 1

It is especially interesting to me to explore this juxtaposition between facts and concepts during a time of much controversy surrounding standardized testing and accountability measures in public schooling. In a way, standardized tests rely entirely on students’ knowledge of facts in order to assess the level of education they are receiving. A fifth grader could be undergoing the most valuable education of his life through exploratory inquiry-based science and project learning, but when it comes time to fill in boxes about which facts from a textbook he remembers, that valuable learning may not translate. Standardized tests are not accomplishing what the public school system set out to do in the first place: to create morally just, civic citizens that will better our society. As Jerome S. Bruner states in his essay “Some Elements of Discovery”:

What we need is a school reform movement with a better sense of where we are          going, with deeper convictions about what kind of people we want to be […] All the standards in the world will not, like a helping hand, achieve the goal of making our multicultural, our threatened society come alive again, not alive just as a competitor in the world’s markets, but as a nation worth living in and living for.

Facts cannot teach us how to treat one another, or how to create and share beauty with the world. They cannot teach us how to be just, or contribute to a society that stands for humanity and innovation. These are concepts that must be attained by future generations if such a world is to exist. Concepts are where the work of true education is found.

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