In Defense of Facts

Our current pedagogy seems to be evolving, with good reason, towards a skill based education.  Increasingly, we see our epistemology defining knowledge as skills.  Critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, argumentation, as well as research skills, internet skills, interactive and creative media skills are currently dominating our professional discussions.  The rallying cries of: the needs of the 21 century learner, student centered differentiated instruction, and the need for student engagement are largely the drive behind this shift.  It has moved us into a more dynamic and organic teacher / student / learning model.  These new focuses are generally good; they have the potential to be powerful learning environments for the betterment of our students (and ourselves).  The problem is not what these focuses do, but to borrow from Neil Postman, the problem is what we are allowing them to undo.  As we shift to skill base learning we are failing to bring with us the value of factual knowledge.  There is a misguided notion that people don’t need to know much (or anything) because as long as they can search, they will find as facts are needed. 

Route learning, memorization, and fact based learning are quickly becoming the perceived hallmark of outdated pedagogy in favour of engaging and entertaining our learners.  I have no problem with making learning engaging and even entertaining; I have no problem with a skills based learning environment.  I do think, however, that we must bring factual knowledge with us, and I do think that route learning, memorization and fact based learning must be part of a professional’s tool kit and a student’s skill set.  Let us take a moment to explore their importance before we dismiss them as outdated or irrelevant.

Part 1: In defence of the fact:

I’ll write just a few quick notes or ideas for now.  Hopefully, response will direct parts 2 and 3

We learn, must learn, facts before we can attempt the vast majority of skills (I’d argue all, but I concede that I haven’t thought of every skill next to this statement…is there any that don’t?).  To read, write or speak we have memorized hundreds of facts.  Letter shape, name, and sound, some, if not all, of the 504 phonics rules in the English language, nouns, words, sight vocabulary, etc.  To increase our understanding and develop or deploy our skills, a knowledge of these facts lie at the core.  This is just one category of facts that are required for skill based activity.

Searching for facts while otherwise engaging in a skills based activity is all well and good.  It is a seemingly miraculous advantage we enjoy over learners of 20 or so years ago.  The difficulty of course is hinted at by former Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and arranged as a found poem by Hart Seely (http://www.slate.com/id/2081042/)

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

The difficulty for skill based education and the danger of being too dismissive of the need for facts is the “unknown unknowns.”  Without some previous exposure to facts, we don’t know that we need to search or explore more…let alone what we are looking for.  By needing to search for a fact, we are admitting their importance.  Why would we not then value them once discovered, keep them, use them and share them?

A collegue recently said that our push towards skill base learning at the expense of facts is driven by an liberal art’s bias in our pedagogy.  He said that, “for math and science people, knowing stuff is important.”  I thought of a doctor and all s/he had to memorize so that s/he didn’t have to Google during an operation.  Yes, before that they researched; however, once the information had been found, s/he had to learn the facts.  The ability to memorize is key to so many jobs and professions.  Should students not get practise in those skills and habits to help prepare them as well as for gaining the contentual knowledge they presently need?

I also wonder, why we are so sure of what skills students will need in a future that we can’t predict.  In the future, won’t we need a good knowledge of facts to help them sort through the constant string of arguments or opinions that they will have to wade through.  Critical thinking skills aren’t enough.  If it is a factual error, you wont see it.

All arguments and opinions are a reaction to a fact.  They must be; otherwise, while they may have a similar grammar, they are at best a pseudo-opinion.  Before we dismiss the ability to memorize or learn by route as outdated and dangerous, we need to remember that factual knowledge  is at the base of all other skills.

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