Are You Smarter Than a 1954 8th Grader?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 10th, 2009

Quick.  How many current members of the President’s Cabinet can you name?  OK, how many Cabinet positions can you name, even if you don’t know the person in the office right now?  You know the 1st and 2nd Amendments, right?  How about No. 3 through 23?  Check out the 98 and 1/2 grade earned on this 1954 8th grade test on the Constitution.   

Oh, wait.  I keep forgetting.  These are just “mere facts” and trivia.   If we ever need to know our rights we can always just Google it. 

[H/T: Matthew K. Tabor via Twitter]


  1. All else being equal, it’s better that people know these things than not know them. But what are the odds that this kid actually understood the things that he was writing? And what are the odds that if he’d taken the test a month, year, or decade later that he would’ve remembered most of it.

    To me, those are the two questions we have to ask here. Content is all well and good, but not if it comes at the expense of understanding. And not if taught in such a way that that content is later forgotten.

    Comment by Corey — November 10, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  2. I’ve always rejected the easy notion that content and understanding are anything other than two sides of the same coin. While it may be possible to have only a limited understanding of content that is learned by rote, it is impossible to understand content one has not learned at all.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 10, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

  3. That’s true, but there’s very little evidence on this test that the student understands what he’s writing in any meaningful way. And I’d argue that a lot of content with very little understanding is no better than very little content with a lot of understanding.

    Comment by Corey — November 11, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  4. Don’t wish to pick a fight with you, Brother Corey, but how could it be possible to have a deep understanding of anything in the absence of deep content knowledge? You’re assuming — falsely, I think — that they are separable.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 11, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  5. never said absence of — I said “very little.” Content is, of course, both necessary and important. But if students don’t understand the content and can’t remember and apply it later in life, then the content’s not doing them much good.

    Making somebody memorize the preamble of the constitution in 8th grade probably means that they’ll know, later in life, more about the preamble than they otherwise would have. But it’s doubtful that they’ll remember it verbatim, and they may or may not understand what the preamble means or how it should affect our country and their lives.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 11, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  6. I’d bet they’re more likely to remember the memorized Preamble (thanks also to the catchy Schoolhouse Rock song) than the cabinet positions. And if they know it, they have access to it for analysis and thus (potential) understanding. So I guess I agree with Robert that it must be prioritized, and with Corey that it must be taught for understanding, not for mere trivia.

    Teaching that content has value ripples through things in a positive way. On the other hand, suggesting — by the way one runs one’s classroom, and develops one’s assessments — that content need NOT be known well is likely to lead to a degradation of both knowledge and curiosity.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — November 12, 2009 @ 12:17 am

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