Part of the naturalization process in the United States involves memorizing 100 facts about the country. These facts cover its government, its history, its geography, and its symbols. (Here’s a PDF of the full list.) They are formatted in a Q&A style. (Example below.)
On test day, would-be citizens are asked 10 random questions from the list of 100, and they must score a 60% or better in order to pass.
To the contemporary American educator, this seems archaic. After all, the common logic goes, why memorize things like this when they can just be Googled? What's the use of a list of facts?
I offer several observations.
First, the test is built on the idea that inflexible knowledge — AKA facts — are a pre-requisite to higher-order skills. When I go to vote for my US congressperson, I can hardly think critically about my lever pull if I don’t know what congresspeople do, what the differences are between the House of Representatives and the Senate, how long a Representative serves, who my current Representative is, and why it might be significant that he’s an Independent versus a Democrat or Republican. All of these facts come together to make possible a level of critical thought not possible without them. They also help me comprehend news pieces that publish in the run-up to the election.
The facts don’t guarantee critical thinking or strong comprehension of journalism on the topic, but they make these higher order things possible in a way that asking your smartphone a dozen fact questions just doesn’t. Because of this, the only guarantee we have is that the person lacking these bits of knowledge will probably make mistakes in their thinking or will be more susceptible to oversimplified propaganda (e.g., I ought to vote along party lines because this is the only smart thing to do, and gosh, didn’t you see all those terrible things about the other party on Facebook last night?).
In short, the test lines up with what cognitive science has clearly demonstrated but what our education profession has been slow to adapt to: higher order thinking and comprehension is built on knowing things.
Second, the test is fair! There are no surprises. When I explained the test to my ninth grade students, a few exclaimed, “Man, why can’t all tests just be like that?”
I had a hard time answering them. It’s clear that we want more for our students than the simple regurgitation of facts. But wouldn’t it be easier to identify ways to help students if our tests had portions measuring simple the recall of a list of Q&A-style facts and then portions measuring the ability to apply those facts to novel situations, critical thinking scenarios, or on-demand arguments (e.g., in pop-up debates)?
I've not got all these questions answered in my own practice yet, but suffice it to say that I’m sure this test offers a useful conversation starter in departments and PLCs around the country.