The Editor’s Desk: New ways of learning

Gone are the days (thank goodness) when students were stuffed full of useless facts.

Vincent Starrett memorably wrote, in his sonnet “221B”, that as far as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go, “It is always 1895.” So quick—and without looking it up—who was Canada’s Prime Minister in that year?

In the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson is astonished to find that his brilliant new friend is unaware that the Earth moves around the sun. When informed of this fact, Holmes says that he will now do his best to forget that fact.

The detective explains by saying that he thinks of his brain as being like a little empty attic, with only so much storage space. “A fool takes in all the lumber [furniture] of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work … It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

However, Holmes realized that even this system had its limits; he could not possibly remember everything that might be useful to him. Several times during the course of his adventures, the detective refers to his self-compiled commonplace books, scrap-books, and volumes of biography in which he can look up further details about people and past cases; details which he knows may be of importance, but for which he does not have room in his brain-attic.

Those of a certain age will remember going to school at a time when stuffing students’ brains full of facts, dates, and names—much of it of no practical use once the test was out of the way—was simply the way things were. Critical thinking was reserved for high school (unless you were fortunate), or more likely college or university.

The result was students who could dutifully recite the names and tenures of all the Prime Ministers of Canada, or the country’s principal imports and exports, or the names of the Great Lakes in order of size; all worthy things in their way, but hardly the stuff needed to make one’s way through the wider world.

That is especially obvious now, when the answers to all these questions and more are answerable in seconds via Google and/or Wikipedia (in hindsight, Holmes’s commonplace books seem like an early version of Google, with the detective figuratively tapping in his query and getting the information he wants). As you’ll see in this week’s piece about the Exhibition of Learning at Desert Sands Community School, students today are being encouraged from a young age to delve deeper into topics to gain a broader understanding of them, how they connect to other topics, and where we stand in relation to them all.

Going back to my first paragraph: the Canadian Prime Minister in 1895 was the somewhat unfortunately-surnamed Mackenzie Bowell, whom I had to Google. Sorry, Mr. Bowell; there’s just no need for you to be taking up room in my brain-attic, even if I had the space.

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