Teaching facts

There are some words that bring people out in a rash in the contemporary world of education. ‘Memorisation’ is one of them. ‘Facts’ is another. There is something about the word ‘facts’ that makes the hairs bristle on the backs of necks, or a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth. At the very least people speak of facts in a hushed, apologetic tone: teaching facts is seen as a necessary evil, something to get out of the way, so that we can focus on the ‘real’ teaching. And what is this real teaching? Well it involves understanding. It involves meaning. It involves concepts.

I want to use this blog post to show why these purportedly more noble teaching aims are fundamentally factual in nature.

Let’s get some definitional groundwork out the way first. According to the OED, as fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true”.[1] It does not take long before we realise that a fact can only exist in propositions. “Henry VIII” is not a fact. “Henry VIII married six times” is a fact. “8” is not a fact. “8 x 8 = 64” is a fact. “The Emancipation of the Serfs” is not a fact. “The Emancipation of the Serfs was one of Alexander II’s attempts to modernise Russian agricultural society” is a fact. When we teach facts, we are necessarily teaching propositions.

From an educational point of view, however, the common retort is for someone to say “but if you teach facts you are not necessarily teaching understanding or meaning”. I have written before about my concerns about the use of the term ‘understanding’, but I do recognise that pupils have to know what a word means if we are claiming to have taught them a fact. For a pupil to know the meaning of a word or phrase they have to know the meanings of the words used to define that word or phrase. A pupil who can say ““The Emancipation of the Serfs was one of Alexander II’s attempts to modernise Russian agricultural society” has not learnt this fact unless they already know the meaning of the words ‘Alexander II’, ‘modernise’, ‘Russian’, ‘agricultural’ and ‘society’. This is why knowledge begets more knowledge and why curriculum sequencing is so important. So my response to those who say “you’re teaching them facts but not understanding” is that you cannot teach facts without understanding: a pupil has not learnt a fact if they do not know the meaning of the words they have learnt. And to ensure that pupils are learning facts (i.e. coming to know the meaning of the propositions they are committing to memory) we have to attend to a complex web of knowledge that, as curriculum designers, it is part of our job to create.

Is everything that pupils learn in school a fact? No. There are many, many things which are facts (i.e. positive propositions about reality) but there are some things that are not. The most important example of things we teach that are not facts are normative propositions. A normative proposition takes the form “you ought to x”. These are very often associated with ethics, but we actually teach normative propositions all of the time in school. Consider the following:

  • “You need to end a sentence with a full stop.”
  • “You need to bring your elbow closer to your ear when you bowl.”
  • “You should measure the volume from the bottom of the meniscus.”

It will not have escaped your attention that normative propositions are a vital component in teaching procedural knowledge: learning how to do something involves someone telling you and showing you how it ought to be done.

Now I am happy to leave it here and to say that what we teach in school are either factual, positive propositions about reality, or normative propositions about how things are done. For those who want to push this further, however, it is not too difficult to show how, in the context of teaching, these normative propositions can also be understood as factual in nature. When I say

  • “You need to end a sentence with a full stop.”

what I am actually saying is

  • “In standard English it is normal to end a sentence with a full stop.”

The easiest way to think about this (and it is one way of making the intellectualist case that all know-how is actually a form of know-that) is that the positive proposition is a response to the question “why?” when someone is presented with a normative proposition.

  • “You need to end a sentence with a full stop.”
  • “Why?”
  • “In standard English it is normal to end a sentence with a full stop.”

There is, in this sense, always a factual statement underpinning the normative proposition in teaching.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that just about everything we do in teaching is deeply and profoundly factual: everything we teach is grounded in the natural and social world, and the reason that we are able to teach pupils (or indeed communicate at all) is that we can construct factual propositions about this reality.

I’m not sure how we move on from the irrational fear of facts with which many in our educational world operate. This suspicion is deeply rooted in our professional culture.

[1] This is an education blog rather than a philosophy blog and I know that philosophers have debated these ideas for millennia, and if you want to pursue this then enjoy! A common objection to my argument here is to say that all knowledge is provisional, with examples usually thrown out about paradigm shifts and classical mechanics. While this is obviously true (it is a fact that facts change over time) I think we should not let this trouble us too much: as long as we teach children that some facts will change in their lifetime as new discoveries are made, and we teach them some facts about why these changes happen, then we are maintaining a degree of intellectual honesty with our pupils whilst nonetheless being able to continue having a discussion about the nature of the curriculum. A second common objection is to say that we teach things in school as facts when we know they are not true. A good example is the ‘solar system’ model of the atom (with electrons orbiting a nucleus). This is a more serious critique of the factual nature of what we teach in school as we are teaching a proposition that we know is not true. This is not a peculiarity to schools: there are many, many things in the world where we state something as a fact when the reality is far more complex. A notion is needed of ‘appropriate simplification’ to resolve this: in pretty much every human activity (even philosophy!) we accept appropriate simplifications as being true. You might not be happy about this, but if you want to use this argument to say that we do not teach facts in school then what you are really doing is suggesting that there are no facts at all. In most walks of life we adopt a position towards truth that can broadly be understood as pragmatic: this will not satisfy those interested in ontology.

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5 Comments on Teaching facts

  1. Thanks for an interesting blog, Michael. Just a few thoughts …

    We don’t really end a sentence with a full stop because it is ‘normal’ to do so in Standard English (even though your statement is true), we do so because a full stop is a useful way of marking breaks between chunks of meaning to aid a reader’s comprehension. However, we can and do play around with the ‘normal’ use of punctuation, to great effect – it’s not a factual rule, it’s more an agreed style of approach. While it is a fact that we normally use full stops, it is not a fact that we have to. English has a lot more opinions than facts, in general. Even grammar isn’t really factual, it’s just a kind of set of rules that we have developed so people can mostly communicate in ways that make sense to everyone who speaks that same language.

    I’ve been pondering the knowledge/understanding thing, during our travels around Chile, and I have a metaphor that it might be useful to consider. I (and my kids) can ‘know’ everything there is to know about a thing (flying on a plane, where penguins live in the wild, what a live volcano looks like, etc.) but I don’t *truly* understand it completely until I experience the thing itself. The experience of being somewhere or doing something gives a layer of depth to my knowledge that I would define as a separate entity called ‘understanding’. I might ‘know’ what flying in a plane would be like, but until I have flown in a plane, I have a gap in my understanding of what it is actually like for me as an individual in a multi sensory and experiential sense. Someone could have more knowledge than me about the science of flying in planes, but because I have done it, I have a different kind of knowledge that is about me understanding something in a personal context. Hope that makes some kind of sense! 🙂

    • I don’t think you’re correct on punctuation – there certainly is an expected usage. Most books, news articles, business documents etc use it. Obviously one can ignore these conventions, but this would be a conscious rejection of the norm.

      On understanding, your argument implies that one could never understand anything in history, as by definition it can never be experienced. Is this what you mean?

      • I think there are very few things that we truly understand at a wider level, although we can begin to understand some things at a personal one. History is an unusual case, I think – our understanding of events can mutate over time very easily, because our perspectives can change, so we don’t really fully understand even when we think we do.

  2. ‘Serfs were emancipated’ is a fact

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