Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Facts: Are they worth teaching?

Fact: A Noun

something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel  is now a fact.
a truth known by actual experience or observation;something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.
something said to be true or supposed to have happened:The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.
Law Often, facts. an actual or alleged event orcircumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect orconsequence. Compare question of factquestion of law.
Source: dictionary.reference.com/browse/fact

Today, during a discussion at work, one of my colleagues said that he didn't really care about facts. My other colleagues agreed that facts are, in fact, trivial, and not really worth teaching. There was unanimous agreement that facts are pretty much a waste of time. They are just "background stuff." It's great that kids can quickly access "facts" on the internet, so that we teachers can focus instead on higher order thinking skills. There is no benefit to wondering about facts. I think that this is a fairly common idea among twenty-first century educators: facts rank very low on their list of what is worth teaching.

I'm not sure I agree with this new trend in education. Is content really so unimportant to teach in the 21st century? Should we rely entirely on the internet for our knowledge base? I think not. To begin with, I think that kids should have a rich fund of knowledge to draw on because without a strong knowledge base, they won't be able to understand and analyze anything they read or see. They have to be able to fit new knowledge into some kind of pre-existing framework for the knowledge to make sense. So from a cognitive standpoint, facts are important, and a content-rich curriculum is vital. We may have google, but that doesn't mean that kids should "know" nothing at all and rely entirely on an "electronic memory."

 But even beyond the need to continue to teach content, are facts interesting? Are they worth wondering about? In my experience, contemporary educators feet strongly that facts are so easily accessible in today's world that they are NOT worth wondering about, and in fact, not worth teaching or discussing.
Now, I think they may be right for certain kinds of information. In what year did India formally gain independence from British rule? In what year did World War 2 officially end? Who is the current president of America? These are facts that probably don't warrant much wondering and teaching. They are important to know, but not necessarily cognitively challenging. Kids can, in fact, google these questions, find (and hopefully memorize) the answers, and then move on to more interesting discussions.  

But what about other kinds of facts? How about why rainbows exist? According to the definition of a fact, the scientific explanation for why a rainbow exists is a fact. It is a scientific truth that has been proven repeatedly, and no scientist disputes it. Yet, I think it is a far more intellectually interesting and aesthetically pleasing "fact" than a historical date. It is, I think, a question that excites the imagination and the intellect in many ways. When, as a young child, I first wondered about why rainbows exist, I began with imaginative fairy-tale explanations: "The sun smiles after the rain, and the smile is a rainbow." Then I figured out it had something to do with sunlight meeting water, and finally, I figured out how water vapor in the air can act like a prism and split light up into its component parts. I find this fact beautiful and fascinating, partly because it reminds me that our human perception is so incredibly limited. It is only in that brief moment when a drop of water illuminates the true nature of light that we humans are able to see a wider range of light's actual colors and fully appreciate its beauty and complexity. Except for those fleeting moments, we are blind to the mystery of light that exists around us all the time. Yes, this is all fairly factual, but is it worth wondering about? Is it worth teaching? I believe so.

Finally, when it comes to facts, I'm not even really sure what the word means. The dictionary definitions listed above are broad and wide. If one were to ask me what the causes of the cultural revolution in China or the civil war in America were, I assume we could come up with certain facts, according to the definitions of facts. Yet, I think that we may end up discussing "whose facts" these really are. Is there anything in history that really qualifies as a straight up fact, or is everything a mere matter of perception and perspective? I'm not sure.

Can two opposing facts co-exist at the same time? According to many scientists, they can. In her book The Universe and the Tea Cup, physicist K.C.Cole gives many  interesting scientific examples of how frame of reference alters what we see as fact, and how many facts that seem to contradict each other can simultaneously co-exist.

Historians, I'm sure, would agree with this idea as well. A fact is often a matter of perspective and view point. As a child in India, I learnt a particular set of facts about Indian history and the creation of Pakistan. I was surprised when I got to university and met a Pakistani who had, in fact, learned an entirely different set of facts about the creation of his country. Whose facts? Could they all be true? Could they all be distorted?

Anyways, the point of this post is that I find "factual content" quite interesting. I think that many facts are, in fact, worthy of wonder and discussion, and definitely worth teaching.