Do you suffer from a fear of facts?

One of the strengths of the English system is that religious education has morphed into a subject where the various beliefs and practices of the world’s great religions are explained to students. The separation of church and state prevents this from happening in many countries but my view is that this type of curriculum fosters intercultural understanding.

Imagine a religious education teacher in an English school explaining the concept of the holy trinity to students. Is it a fact that many Christians believe in the holy trinity? Yes. Is it a fact that the trinity consists of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit? Yes. Is the holy trinity a fact? That’s a matter of opinion. Can students appreciate the difference between these things? Of course.

An interesting aspect of the ‘student-centred’ or ‘progressive’ philosophy of education is that many teachers don’t even recognise that it is a philosophy. Like I once did, they assume that it is simply the truth, supported by research. But little dissonances bubble to the surface sometimes like a bad bout of indigestion. One of these is a fear of facts.

Andy Tharby recently published an excellent post where he discussed teaching literary interpretations as facts. The idea was to explain these interpretations explicitly, with the aim of students recalling them. He mentioned some of the unease he felt at doing this and yet he found that by teaching these interpretations, his students developed a better understanding and even produced creative interpretations of their own. To explain to students a certain interpretation of a text is like explaining the holy trinity. It is a fact that many people subscribe to this concept and we can factually describe what this concept is but this is not the same as stating that the concept is true. Students are clearly quite able to cope with this distinction.

And these are powerful facts. An understanding of the holy trinity enables you to understand lots of other insights about Christianity, the reformation and, by extension, quite a lot of history. An understanding of an interpretation of a play gives you an insight through which to understand the intentions of the playwright.

Yet Tharby admitted that he was being provocative by referring to ‘facts’ and certainly some of those commenting on Twitter suggested that, although they approved of the teaching that he described, they did not like his use of this term. Why is this? Why do we have a fear of facts?

In student-centred rhetoric, facts have to be useless, disconnected and easily obtained with a bit of Googling. By debasing them in this way, student-centred educators can argue against the teaching of facts in favour of higher-order skills such as critical thinking. If we allow facts to be powerful, complex and nuanced, we negate this argument.

The truth is that knowledge underpins any higher-order skills. We cannot think critically about that which we do not know. It is time to free ourselves from factphobia and recognise it for what it is: an unthinking hangover from a philosophy that has damaged education for too long.

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6 Comments on “Do you suffer from a fear of facts?”

  1. The idea of ‘facts’ has its roots in England:

    Barbara J. Shapiro (2000). ‘A culture of fact. England, 1550-1720’. Cornell University Press. info

  2. Jen says:

    I agree with this completely. I am always astounded by how frequently people makes comments such as “When people memorize something without understanding it…” Well, of course it’s of little value. But seriously the same can be said in reverse yet no one ever goes there. “When people understand something but don’t memorize it…” My best example is myself as a college student in accounting. I thought that since I had done well in math it would be easy. I didn’t like it at all and I studied by looking things over and thinking oh well that makes sense. I UNDERSTOOD it. But I never set the book aside and forced myself to recall the names of the entries or the exact order that they should go in. And when I got the tests which gave my information and a black sheet on which to create a balance sheet from scratch I was forced to hand in a nearly blank paper–one of my most embarrassing moments.

    I think that generally, depending on the topic, memorization coming first and then after practice comes fuller understanding once the information is locked into a schema and starts connecting to other information. I believe it was Daniel Willingham who made a comment that the things that help learners connect facts are themselves more facts (I don’t know that that came out well–I originally read a much more elegant version of that). Basically, the things that connect disparate facts are actually just more facts.

    However, my accounting example shows that understanding can come before memorization and that the “understanding without memorization” can be just as empty and worthless as “memorization without understanding”. Trying to separate them in order to disparage one and elevate the other isn’t very helpful.

    • gregashman says:

      You are absolutely right. It’s facts all the way down.

    • Queen's English says:

      Absolutely. After years of misguidedly saying to my students that they shouldn’t be memorising quotations (Rote bad!), I’ve belatedly realised that they can’t show the marker that they understand the text, unless they can remember relevant quotations and how to analyse them. If you can’t remember it, it doesn’t matter how well you “understand” it. It’s no use to you.

  3. Jen says:

    Correction: the tests which gave ME information and a BLANK sheet


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