New MN standards shift to conceptual learning

For those who attend public schools, most would agree that their experiences greatly impact the rest of their lives. The teaching that occurs in our public schools influences how our society views itself.

In order to make our schooling more effective, Minnesota’s standards have shifted away from memorization of facts to understanding of concepts. It is good to have a society built on an understanding of our past; however, with greater focus on sometimes vague concepts, instruction on an idea may turn to indoctrination.

Reforms to Minnesota’s academic standards may have this effect but it is unclear. Many of the changes seem minimal and unlikely to have a great impact on the classroom teachings. The problem is a lack of public discussion on the issues at hand. The reforms are not being debated at the capitol but handled in the courts.

Because of a lack of clarity—and quite frankly time—I will focus my thoughts not on specific examples but a broad discussion of two learning methods: factual and conceptual.

The new standards reflect a shift in the focus away from factual learning towards conceptual learning. This shift puts a greater burden on the teachers to provide proper instruction of abstract concepts that may be too complex for the skill level of most students.

The greatest issue discussed in American history is race relations. Should high school students be expected to understand these complex issues or should high school start the conversation by focusing only on the historical events without in-depth analysis? Is higher education a better place to talk about the complex issues of race and motivations for racism?

Under a system focused on factual learning, students would learn about the major events of the past and their influence in shaping the present and future. Under a system focusing on conceptual learning, students would learn a great deal more about how to draw conclusions about the past.

While one way of learning may seem better than the other, the best form is a delicate balance of each that respects both sides of arguments. Conversations need to be started, yet teachers must be careful not to abuse their positions of power by biasing students against valid arguments. The changes proposed may sway Minnesota’s standards too far towards the conceptual learning, but without knowing their implementation, the actual impact of the changes cannot be determined.