Dearth of knowledge is a dangerous thing 1

August 19, 2010

I was sorry to read Tim Birkhead parroting the faddish notion that "technology has devalued the learning of facts" because they can now be acquired so easily "at the click of a button on a smartphone" ("Be different, be (s)quids in", 12 August). We should, he suggests, concentrate on teaching students "how to think" rather than "facts".

I suppose that as a historian with a head stuffed full of useless trivia, I could be expected to be unsympathetic to such an idea, but I believe I have allies among the neuroscientists, too. Learning facts has a significant impact on brain architecture, not just directly upon the areas concerned with memory, but also, by close association, on those responsible for higher critical facilities: decision-making and emotional responses.

For example, research undertaken at University College London revealed the enlarged hippocampus of the London taxi driver. This is generally attributed both to the initial acquisition of "the Knowledge" and the cumulative experience gained by driving the city's streets. I suspect that trying to teach "critical thinking skills" to students who don't actually know anything other than how to use Google would prove a fruitless endeavour.

Gervase Phillips, Principal lecturer in history, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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