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.