Archive for category Rants

Why I’m not signing up for an Algebra workshop for teachers


I received an announcement about a board sponsored teacher work shop to increase teacher competency in teaching algebra; it prompted this little rant1.

I suspect the workshop  is part of our system’s reaction to the PISA test scores and its mistreatment for political or economic concerns in the media (or just plan inadequate and incompetent) which has lead us to believe that math scores are falling compared to the rest of the world and that this is a problem.  While I strongly disagree with those tenants, that’s not the issue I’m having.  Algebra is part of the curriculum and sure, there are teachers who could stand to build competency in this area.  Teachers who don’t know what they’re doing in math, as in any subject, are likely less effective and therefore waste the time and efforts of their students.  The problem I am having is we are focusing our resources in the wrong stand of math; we are focusing on a strand that will have little impact on our student’s lives and we are neglecting a strand that teachers, as a group, need to build competency in.

Many people frustratingly argue or express dissatisfaction with math because they fail to see its relevance in their life.  “When am I going to use this?” and the like, are questions we uncomfortably endure during the teaching of algebra.  In Real Life, most situations can be done using the same sort of subtraction that identifies number families in primary without “let statements” or other algebraic strategies.  True, algebra does get amazingly complicated where proper procedure is necessary, but not in real life.  People can live their lives without algebra without disadvantage.  One reason why they never solidify their understanding or that skills are allowed to degrade is there are so few practical applications.  This is part of a problem with our school curriculum.  Our system is a sort of pre-calculus model; we teach math focused on, and heading towards, calculus as a mathematical goal.  The problem with that is, beyond some engineers, very few up us will end up learning/needing/applying calculus in our lives.  It has been 21 years since I took calculus—I don’t remember how to do it, but I have never had an opportunity where I needed it; I have not suffered for want of calculus.  Calculus may be a stunning example of human brilliance; it may be invaluable to engineers, but to the rest us, it is impractical and unnecessary.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Aristotle taught that education is both a good unto itself and what you can do with it.  Esoteric knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it might be as it has a serious negative consequence.  The math we need in life; the math we need daily to understand or solve our current problems is the math our system least values even though it is most relevant.  The negative consequence is our studetns are short changed on relevant math when we, as a system, focus on pre-calculus.  We should be focusing on Data-management and probability as a system.  Understanding the importance of standard deviation would be so much more useful to people that calculating the area under a curve.

Many teachers and students think that these 2 units are easy and of little value; this is mainly the case because that’s how our curriculum teats them.  Each year they make their surveys and walk around the school collecting data (and interrupting classes) so they can graph their “authentic experience” in whatever graphing style they are learning.  In probability, students spin spinners, roll dice, and pull marbles from imaginary bags—boring and pointless.  As a result, Psychology students struggle unprepared through their Stats course in first year university; teachers nod dutifully when Sir Ken Robinson tells them a test resulted in 98% of kindergarteners scoring at genius level, we fill in our school plans for continuous improvement without discussing significant difference, mean or standard deviation; we don’t understand in what ways the ambiguities of “average” and how it’s being used to mislead us; in short, we don’t know what we’re missing, ignoring and short changing our students on.  I was lucky; I met a teacher that loved both…he taught me!  I learned.

For data:

Hand out a diagnostic test and realize that by grade 7 and 8 everyone can make a bar graph—fix the odd problem with scale and move on!

Now you can:

1)      Present David McCandless on and the artistic/beauty of graphing.  Combine graphing to tell a different story…a picto-scatter graph, a three dimensional bar graph, a bar graph were the width of the bar displays other data, etc.

2)      Present Chris Jordan…graphically display something that so large we can’t deal with intellectually—only emotionally.

3)      Present Dan Ariely on and see the predictable mistakes we make with data everyday…advertisers know them…so should your kids

4)      Watch Hans Rosling tell a story with data in “the river of myth” or “200 countries over 200 years.” Turn your data into stories.

5)      Teach them graphic manipulation techniques.  It’s not wrong when a magazine or politician starts their graph at 50 rather than 0…its strategic–learn the strategies.  Stop telling them it’s wrong to not start at zero and start telling them when they might want to (remember, “there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics”…teach them how they are being lied to)

6)      When should you use mean or mode or median….depends on the story you want to tell

7)      How to use biases to your advantage…advertisers and politicians don’t avoid them…neither should you

8)      Have them explain the math behind jokes (3 mathematicians go hunting; a duck flies by.  The applied mathematician takes a shot but misses—2 feet too high.  The Abstract mathematician takes a shot; he misses—2 feet too low.  The statistician starts jumping…”we got him! We got him!)

In probability:

Think it’s easy? Try this: if 72% of people prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, what is the probability of at least 8 out of a random 10 people survived prefer milk chocolate?  Probability is great, because, like data we’re not very good at it and it is often counter intuitive–we have lots to learn

1)      Look up “Linda bank teller” on Google and explore the conjunction fallacy with your students.  How many chose option 2…was it the standard 85% even though it’s wrong?

2)      Have fun even…look up Donald Duck and Flipism

3)      If 5 friends are drawing straws or picking numbers is it better to go first or last?  Prove it (it doesn’t matter—a beautiful little pattern emerges)!

4)      Have you explored the Monty Hall problem…I like it because so many mathematicians were wrong…Why?

5)      Penny’s game:  try it! Explain it!

6)      Try using black jack

7)      Explain the birthday problem—why in a room of 23 people is the chance of 2 sharing a birthday 50%

8)      Go to and find the coin flipper…talk about the law of large numbers–more chance of being close to the mean but less chance of being exactly the mean…cool!

9)      Probability has multiple modes to solve problems which create multiple points of entry for different learning styles.  There’s diagrams like tree diagrams, some formulas and calculation techniques, tables and charts, and experimental.  What is the chance of getting a value of 7 rolling 3 dice is a great question because people will approach it differently

10)   Then, if you’re really adventurous, try Bayesian logic…if your doctor gives you 3 months to live why will you likely live much longer than that?

While we hardly use algebra, we are constantly running data management and probability software in our heads but it needs constant upgrades to remain useful as we grow into more complicated situations.  Algebra is great; it is one of my favourite units because I like the symmetry—it’s beautiful; however, I’m not fooling myself.  Algebra gets them ready for high school; data and probability get them ready for life.

1While I came about these conclusions on my own and in discussion with a colleague, we were both delighted to be vindicated by Arthur Benjamin: “Teach statistics before calculus!” on when we found it. Some of the phrasing in this post is inspired by his presentation.

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The endurance of our school/class model is evidence of it’s strength, not it’s stagnation.

Often, in educational circles, I hear the statement/complain that schools and classrooms look the same as they did a 100 years ago with the implication that this is harmful to student learning.  I feel this is a ridiculous statement; it is either untrue or at best, irrelevant.

I think the first way to respond can be found in this article: Dear Hollywood: “School Doesn’t Look Like This”  In this article, some of the differences between today’s classrooms and those of the past are presented.  Focusing on, teaching style, digital tech integration, desk or table arrangement, etc.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, and anyone familiar with today’s classrooms should be able to expand it.  The troubling implication here is that so many in the education field don’t.  There are so many other differences in content and pedagogy to point out.  I once got a tweet from a digital art teacher who wondered if we were teaching the same as in the past; this from a digital art instructor!  He later revealed he was refering to the fact that we still teach them in batches based on age.  I have addressed that here:   Even if you don’t agree with me, we can’t perseverate on this one similarity…it doesn’t alone justify the hyperbolic claim of “sameness.”  Some similarities or consistencies will always be there (eg. schools will be to educate people).

Is your classroom just the walls and desks?  Surely you don’t teach the same as 100 years ago?  How many of us are teaching Latin or Classic civilizations (well grade 5’s are)?  Are your students in single rows?  Are you in a one room school house?  In Ontario, at least, aren’t you using a curriculum radically different from the one used in the 1990’s (which was of course different from the one used 100 years ago)?

In our board, we go to the Heritage School House or Pioneer Village to experience the differences and to learn about how different schooling was 100 years ago.  Sure I recognise the building, sure I recognise the front desk as the teacher’s…but there’s a world of difference between same and similar.  Writing the word “once” is a similar act to writing a novel that starts with “Once upon a time…”   I also recognise cars, houses, churches (even of different traditions and even 1000 of years old), boats, and all manner of other things.  Being recognizable is part of it’s essence or even Platonic quality; chair appearance hasn’t changed to the point that its unrecognizable, but the tech to build one and the ergonomics have certainly improved.  Do we need a new chair design to the point where it isn’t recognisable to prove to overly concrete and limited thinkers that it has changed?  How about schools, just because they don’t look like an airport or submarine doesn’t mean they are the same as 100 years ago.

Being old is not the same as being obsolete or irrelevant.  Anyone over 20 should intuitively agree.  Would the people who suggest that schools are obsolete because of consistent design be willing to make a similar aguement with religious people.  Would they be willing to say, “Your moral code is from the Bronze Age; you need to replace it!” to Christians and Jews.  Should old people be considered obsolete as well?

My students can instantly recognise hotels, planes, cars, hospitals and banks no matter how old they are.  Lots of things look the same but still work differently.  Schools continuously change…often teachers grumble about that.  We have a board plan for continuous improvement (change), and a school plan for continuous improvement (change)…never mind the dozens of changes implemented by Ministry and Board employees each year.  Never mind the changes that I implement each year.  You can go to school online now—can you travel online or go to a hospital online?

To reiterate: old does not mean obsolete.  That is an epistemology that has developed over the last generation or so in the Western World.  It is created largely by the market place; a market place of innovation sure, but also one of planned obsolescence, disposal-ability, and replace-ability.  A market place that sold new things by creating false needs, or by creating the desire for newer products as a value.  We used to repair now we replace and recycle.  We used to value tradition over transience.  Sometimes, things/ideas/building have staying power because they elegantly solve a problem, or because they so successfully create positive utility.

The better something is designed, the longer it lasts.  Perhaps the persistence of the classroom model should be celebrated!  It has lasted a very long time; where’s the evidence that your innovative model (or vague concept) will be better?  Where’s the staying power of your innovation?  Have you analyzed the unforeseen consequences?  Do you have enough evidence to argue it is better and therefore classrooms need to change even more than they already do?

The endurance of our school/class model is evidence of it’s strength, not it’s stagnation.


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21st Century Learning? Get over it! It’s Already 2012!

@Stephen_Hurley proposed that the writers at write exploring 21st century learning and its meaning.  Here are some of my initial thoughts.  They’re a bit jumbled.  Feel free to deconstruct or ask for clarification:

I think the idea/term, 21st century learning is a fairly empty catch phrase used to sell a variety of programs or to rally for change in the education system.  People may do this with the best intentions, and may affect positive change; others might not be so pure.  To do this, they temporarily define the term and apply it to their ideas/programs.  They are free to do this, because the term/concept is an empty shell, free to be inhabited; it is a cart waiting for a horse and a bandwagon waiting for us to jump on, it seems to be an attempt to throw the baby out with the bath water…

I have been perplexed that the phrase is as persistent and wide spread as it seems to be.  Perhaps it is because the idea is free to be adapted, but I have been surprised that a group of educators, focused on innovation and reform as a positive utility, would adopt a single concept so completely and project its reign for a 100 years…what will we have in 2099, 21st century learning as we have it now?

It’s possible that there is something unique in our technological landscape and this pedagogy, but I’m less sure of this then most.  Perhaps “more is different” as Clay Shirky suggests, but perhaps it’s not.  When members of the Oldowan Culture were breaking rocks into tools 2.6 million years ago, they sat in groups.  They helped each other, they collaborated and improved, they gave feedback and shared, they did everything we are asking of our students in their learning and are calling new and innovative under 21st century learning.  Class discussions are asymmetrical, like conversations on SM, and require the same social skills.  When a student is sneaking a peek at answers in their desk and making sure the teacher isn’t going to catch them, they are multitasking.  Is there any skill required in 21st century learning, besides button pushing, that hasn’t existed, as a skill, in the last 5 centuries?

I am further perplexed by our current push to leave the past behind us and innovate.  The present was built on the skills of the past.  We inhabit a world of social media and communication revolution that was constructed from the education system we are so quickly trying to abandon.  I was a product of that learning environment, as were most of us here, yet here we are adapting, using, creating and all without the benefits of a school system designed to include 21st century learning skills – one wonders how we do it?  If people need radically different education to navigate this world, then surely we can’t hope to do so.  Further, with our rapidly changing media landscape, why do the skills 21st “centuriests” are now focused on, have a better chance to prepare students for that unknown future?  Won’t they be outdated as students mature?  It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s line “if it works, it’s obsolete.”

Valuing innovation and innovators is a cultural choice and not a universal truth.  Some prefer stability, familiarity, tradition, etc.  Can we in multi-cultural Canadaretool our education system with this cultural tenant so entrenched in the idea of 21st century learning?  Each change in the process seems to create new problems as it solves old ones; it seems to be a zero sum gain/game.  Is each innovation in pedagogy an improvement or just a change?

Instead of focusing our discussion about 21 century learning, it seems to me that we should be focusing on effective learning and teaching.  There are fun, engaging, activities to be created and done with the tools we now have available, but 21st learning seems merely to be “an improved means to an unimproved end.”  The goals for our teaching and student learning, the skills we wish to engender, are the same skills that led to success in the past.  Let’s not focus on the century, that seems like focusing on the technology at the expense of focusing on the learning.  Let’s stop talking about learning in the 21st century and just talk about the skills students need in order to be successful and the many approaches, even traditional approaches, to engender them.  Let’s drop dropping catch phrases to blur our conversations and drop making false dichotomies between the past and the present…


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Don’t teach with tech until you know what you’re doing (did I really just say that?)

 I was talking to @mbcampbell360 on twitter the other day…oops…did you catch it? I of course wasn’t talking; I was using Twitter, the micro-blogging publishing and broadcasting service, …but I digress…. I was reminiscing about an old friend who liked to learn as he went. He’d not really plan and think things out—for him, the first idea was always the best and it was “go time” – time to explore. Often this led him into trouble…I remember the 40 ft ladder falling off the building into the parking lot, I remember the 100 year old tree falling the wrong way and almost crushing most of my cottage guests (don’t worry, it only rushed the outhouse-vacant!). I think this “don’t worry-it will all work out-you don’t need to have deep understanding of what you are doing or the consequences of such” is a very worrying trend in education right now…

I am getting a little concerned by the level of ignorance we tolerate, even encourage, in teachers using digital technology and SM with their students.  Often educators insist that the tech shouldn’t be “the lesson”, but a tool–its not about the tech!  I agree with their reasons, but it does also allow teachers to have a cavalier attitude to tech instruction.  I believe there is a vast amount of instruction to be done regarding the tech. before it is opened to be used by students as a tool (you can see the process I went through before students were encouraged to blog and tweet here: -its not tech specific; studetns can still explore).  This requires the teacher to learn it first. 

I’d like to highlight 2 tweets that were sent recently (without identifying the person—while these were sent by individuals, I feel that they represent common trends in education):

“hey PLN…I need help. I’ve borrowed 10 iP@ds for two months to use with my class. What are must-have apps?” This concerns me a bit. While it may be the case that she already has well thought out reasons and uses already planned for these iPads (well not certain, but hoping), I guess my fear is that she doesn’t. That she is going to do some exploring with her kids and see what they can do. That she’s going to teach them the technology (or let them explore and learn undirected) rather then a learning goal. For her and her class, I worry, that it will be about the technology and it will be directionless and without other learning goals. It will be dangerous.

another tweet was:

“introduced the Ipads to my kids yesterday and was AMAZED (sic) with what they came up with!” While it is sometimes the case that our students surprise us, and there can be no happier occasion then when students exceed our expectations; nonetheless, I can’t help but fear that this teacher really had no idea what she was doing with the iPads to further their learning. If they outstrip your expectations in the introduction, the process you went through to develop your expectations was flawed. It could be she’s only talking about how surprised she was at their speed of ‘mastery’ but the fear lingers in me regardless.

I’ve written about this metaphor before, but I’d like to explore it more fully. Teaching SM to students should be done like driving instructors. We should be experts first, our exploring days should be behind us, and we should advise caution (you can see the original here: ).

Experts first:

We used to talk about deep understanding and master teachers. Of course now we talk about innovators and experimenters and willingness to fail. While these are desirable traits at times, I’m not sure that using SM with students is one of them. Assuming for the moment that SM is a powerful learning tool, shouldn’t that power have a little direction. If it is a powerful opportunity, it is all the more tragic when it is squandered and wasted. If anyone feels there is no wrong way to use it; that it is so intuitive you don’t need deep understanding, or it is so powerful that in can overcome the instructor’s ignorance, then let them come forward and argue it below; otherwise, me must posit that increasing our knowledge increases the power of the tool. It was the master teacher who know many teaching techniques (TDSB and YRDSB—remember Instructional intelligence?) and had the deep understanding to know when and how to apply them to extend and maximize student learning. Sure kids can learn on their own, sure they can learn in spite of our ignorance- but wouldn’t a knowledgeable instructor help? Can we afford inefficient models of teaching? Are we being professional if we utilize them? The answer used to be a resounding and emphatic no. What changed? What role do we play better wrapped in ignorance like scholarly garb?

Out exploring days should be behind us:

We should be masters in technology and SM firs; before we introduce it to our students. What other subject would we tolerate such teacher ignorance? As students progress in school, should they be more tolerant of it or less? Should primary teachers not understand young kids or not be masters of reading and teaching techniques? Is there any other place that we praise teachers for not knowing and for learning concurrently with their students so completely? It really bothers me to hear teachers talk about using SM to have a conversation—they aren’t conversations. They are broadcast and publishing mediums permanently attached to your identity. They are advertisement delivery services-neither free or safe (without understanding). I have said several times: read some Neil Postman, and some Danah Boyd. If you are going to bring minors into this environment, you had better understand it. Would you bring them into any other environment that you weren’t knowledgeable in? The forest? The subway? A desert? On a Frozen pond? How can we prepare, utilize, trouble shoot, assist, protect, and guide effectively when we don’t have deep understanding of what’s happening?

Advise caution:

look before you leap! Check your mirrors! Look both ways! Don’t talk to strangers! In unknown or alterable situations, we advise caution. Why wouldn’t we be cautious with SM and digital technology? Imagine our driving instructor saying such things as, “I don’t know, lets find out!”, “lets see what this can do!” , “feel free to explore a bit!”, “don’t be afraid to make mistakes”, “the highways work by everyone being nice to each other, don’t worry, people will help you!” Hmmm…Of course, you have to be knowledgeable to realize there are dangers on the Net and such. This is especially true because of all the bad advice about how safe and wonderful it is. Of course it is these things, but just like a car, it is only true when the conditions are right and you know what you are doing.

Some one else tweeted: “When introduced to a new technology, I’ve never heard a student say, “when’s the workshop?’” I hope that when you teach it to them, you do it with such rigor that they would never need to say that. I hope that when intorduced to tech, you did it with in the frame work of a workshop—why wouldn’t you? If you leave them not understanding, you have failed them and left them at risk. Don’t use Tech. Until you know how to use Tech. Don’t teach tech. until you know how to teach it and use it to teach.

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technology can no longer be ignored; sharpen your pencil!

There’s a lot of talk out there on the Twitterverse, and other digital places, to the effect that teachers have to use technology.  This statement is either painfully obvious or a complete hyperbole.  If the term “technology” is being used appropriately, then the  statement is painfully obvious; chairs, lighting, the alphabet, clothes, and deodorant at all technologies that a teacher really needs to use in the course of a school day.

I think, however, people are generally referring to digital technology and some web 2.0 / SM tools. This of course is a complete hyperbole.  This position is supported by such   statements as: teachers can no longer afford to ignore tech (sic); or it’s insane to 
ignore tech (sic); or teacher’s who are uncomfortable with tech (sic) are doing such a disservice to their students that they should retire or be forced out of the profession (this one’s paraphrased).  These statements are fairly common on such micro-blogging sites like Twitter. To these statements and others like them, I’d like to say in very general terms, “calm down, relax, and be reasonable.”

Calm down: I really like digital technology and SM but it’s still not everyone’s focus.  20% of Canadians don’t even have internet connection, Twitter is used by just 3% of the world’s population and a mere 50,000 individuals account for 50 % of the traffic (that’s ¼ of 1 percent of Twitter users).  How many of your personal followers are no longer active?  How many Twitter users have rejected Twitter?  It’s great, but digital technology is still a minority experience.  Let’s not invalidate so many people’s lives by pretending we have all marched to an omega point of technology and social experience.

Relax: it still remains to be seen if this is a digital revolution we are experiencing.  We might be in a revolution, but we might not. If most if your public discourse is in digital mediums it is hard to maintain perspective.  Will it be adopted by the majority? Right now, voices ringing with the need for digital technology are still a minority; is 
this a  revolution or is it the Bay of Pigs.  How big is this movement? Is it growing faster then the resistance to it?  Is it unreasonable to suggest even the possibility that society might actually reject SM? No one thought that Rome would fall either.  It remains to be 
seen whether SM will be evaluated as a liberator or conqueror.  At what point will digital tech fall; when will the next revolution start and what will replace the current technological environment?

Be reasonable: there is plenty of good, useful, necessary learning to do outside of SM.  We used to suggest that there was room for diverse techniques – in teaching and learning.  Some educators might actually choose to reject SM for valid reasons; is there no room for professional judgement here?

There is lots of great stuff you can do with digital technology in the classroom; however, you need to stop justifying yourself at the expense of others.  Your hyperbole doesn’t help
your position.  Whenever one side doesn’t allow for legitimate opposition to even exist there is a problem.

I use digital technologies in my class quite extensively, though not as extensively as some.  I think that teachers should explore the possibilities and decide how best to use them (even if that is be not using them).  I don’t care what people’s decisions are – use it or don’t, its up to you, after you have informed yourself.  I don’t want to ne at a point where we tell each other what must be done; how to do it; and pretend there is no other way to be a good teacher.

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Technology and the alphabet

I have decided to change the alphabet. There are several things I have always hated about it and it is time to fix / change them. First, I have always hated that there was no letter for the TH sound. Surely so popular a sound deserves its own letter. I have chosen % to be known as the letter “Tum” (unfortunately, the closest approximation is the percent sign; the difference is that the circles are supposed to be touching the line for the letter “Tum”). I have also always hated the arbitrary nature of the order; I propose to change it. All stick letters first, followed by stick and curve, then stick and circle letters and finally “O” will be last as it should be. I want to do more changes but %ey will have to wait.

I can do %is because %e alphabet is an invention; it was made and can be modified. It doesn’t reflect any natural order. It is a technology as is %e language %at it encodes. Often we hear %e term technology used to refer to computer or electronic devices but %is is misleading. It is one small category of technology and deserves to be treated as such. Some of %e earliest technologies invented were part of %e Oldwan culture and predate modern humans by about 2.4 million years. Ano%er important technology was fire, which has been purposefully used for about 400 000 years. %e technology %at allowed %e Homo genus to colonize Europe successfully was placing stones around a fire.

Wi% so many different technologies available, focusing on electronic technology seems risky. Aren’t chairs in a circle social media? Why is listening to a Ted Talk inherently better %en listening to a teacher? Why is Skype better %en letter writing or talking to %e primary class downstairs?

 Pencils are technology too and a powerful one at %at. It is still %e pen %at is mightier %en %e sword not %e netbook.

 PS…there are 21 % (Tums) used in %is (oops, I mean 22) post since its invention…see how important a sound it is…


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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 (

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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