As I wind up another semester of teaching at Notre Dame, I’ve been thinking about what I’m actually accomplishing in the classroom. The standard view is that teaching imparts knowledge, either knowing how (skills) or knowing that (information). Tests seem important because they measure the knowledge students have gained from a course. But how well would most of us do on the tests we aced even just a few years ago? Discuss the causes of the Thirty Years War. Mary is 20 years old, which is twice the age Ann was when Mary was the age Ann is now: how old is Ann? How do Shakespeare’s early comedies differ from his late romances? Give a quick summary of Mendel’s Laws.
Overall, college education seems a matter of mastering a complex body of knowledge for a very short time only to rather soon forget everything except a few disjointed elements. (To return to the test questions above: it was about religion; you would need to set up an equation; the comedies were supposed to be funny, the romances not so much; something about the genetics of peas). Of course, almost everyone eventually learns how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic–along with the rudiments of other subjects such as history and geography. But that’s because such knowledge is constantly reviewed as we deal with e-mail, pay bills and read newspapers– not because we learned it once and for all in, say, third grade.