It is easy to fall into false dichotomies: mind vs body, teacher vs administrator, Coke vs Pepsi (maybe not). One of the most prevalent false dichotomies in education is facts vs concepts, often meant to mean multiple choice test vs performance based assessment, rote memorization versus understanding, book learning versus real world learning. (an important side note that could be a whole discussion in and of itself is that these groups of dichotomies are not synonymous) Painting these ideas as in opposition goes against how knowledge works in practice, the current understanding of the brain, and is an impediment for people who want to reform schools.
How knowledge works: One of the loudest arguments against learning facts these days is “You can look up anything on the internet.” This statment has value when it is used to encourage teaching kids how to do good research and how to synthesize multiple sources into a cohesive understanding. When used to argue that facts themselves have no value and do not assist in the process of analysis, however, that argument is misleading.
Hypothetical situation: Pick 2 topics, one you know a lot about and one you know very little about. I will pick botany and accounting. Now you have to perform some research to answer a fairly complex question on each of these topics (Compare the different groups of gymnosperms and compare absorption costing to asset turnover) . You have 10 minutes for each question. Go.
I don’t have the aspects of the different gymnosperms memorized. However, I know what a gymnosperm is, I remember that there are different groups, and I understand the basics of plant structure so that when I read articles about the topic I can more easily filter the information.
I couldn’t even think of a question to ask in accounting, so I first had to search for a glossary of terms and then look around until I found two terms that seemed comparable (I don’t know if they are actually comparable). I don’t even know what I don’t know. As I try to learn more about accounting, I keep having to stop and look up basic ideas used in articles because I lack the background information. The words themselves seem to “stick less” in my head than the botany terms.
I am the same person, with the same research and synthesis skills, the same ability to pick up new ideas, and yet presented with a similar problem in two different factual areas I yield two different results. Why? Because facts matter. My prior knowledge about plants made it easier for me to understand new knowledge about plants. I had mental structures in place for categorizing information about plants, that were built when I was first asked to learn botany. I know how roots, stems, and leaves work ( I know that all plant structures can be classified as a root, stem or leaf), and so I can more easily compare the roots of the groups of gymnosperms because my brain groups that information together for me.
These mental structures are not helping me remember the things I read about accounting. I find myself wanting someone to explain the basics of accounting from an expert perspective so that I can frame my mind around ideas. Then I might be able to sift through all of the terms. I want someone to teach me the facts about accounting, so that I can approach the sea of information with some guidance.
Obviously facts matter or we wouldn’t have specialists. Specialists were not created merely due to the fact that only a few people had access to pieces of information. Specialists are still needed in an open information world, because information is really hard to understand without a lot of background.
Modern understanding of the brain? Well we don’t have a perfect understanding of memory, but we do know a few things that help break this dichotomy. There are no isolated facts in the brain. There are only connections. Your brain is a network of billions of neurons and every time you experience anything new, your brain changes those connections. That is learning. The more your brain is exposed to a certain language as a child the more the connections in the brain match the patterns of the language and the better the brain is at that language. When you are trying to learn specific details (your mother’s face, a phone number, the capital of France), your brain must change to emphasize a certain pathway and then be able to activate that pathway at some other time (recall). Your brain seems to store similar ideas together (apparently when you put an electrode in a brain and stimulate one area ideas of cars and predatory animals are activated) The more an idea is connected to other ideas in the brain (due to similarity) the easier it is to reactivate. This is why progressive educators are right in moving teaching towards contextualizing knowledge. No matter how hard you try to cram an idea into a person’s head as an isolated fact, the brain will store that idea as a connection to other ideas.
So, what we call facts are really just parts of concepts, and what we call concepts are just a bunch of facts. No fact can exist on its own in the brain, and no concept can exist on its own in the brain independent of the specific facts that gave rise to the concept.
OK, so hopefully you are willing to consider that facts and concepts aren’t antithetical, and maybe content knowledge is useful, but why is the dichotomy bad for reform? If we put the choice to administrators, teachers, and the public: the children will learn EITHER facts or concepts, facts will win. We shouldn’t be saying that the only way to teach a fact is to be as boring as a test. Teach the children the content through engaging problem based activities that activate their brains and allows them to create multiple connections. If you give the kid only one connection to an idea and isolate from the world because it is a hated fact, then the kid won’t learn that fact. We should teach facts the same way we teach concepts, because they are no different.
Teaching Example: The parts of the cell are a collection of facts that are often on the standardized tests. I have used some form of the following lessons at some time in my time as a teacher.
Bad Lesson: Give the kids a sheet with the list of cell parts and definitions and tell them they need to learn them.
OK Lesson: Have kids make flashcards for each cell part by looking up the definition and spend 10 minutes a day quizzing themselves and others on the definition of the cell part.
Good Lesson: Have the kids make a poster of the cell parts with the definitions, pictures, examples of the cell part doing its job, and a metaphor for each cell part (as a factory or town)
Great Lesson: Have the kids debate which cell part is the best. Each group defends two cell parts in a single elimination tournament. Each side presents an opening statement with facts about what the cell part does and why that is important to life (and the audience). Then there is a cross examination/rebuttal period for the two teams to interact. The winner is decided by secret ballot (the teacher gets extra votes) and moves on until a “Most Important Cell Part” is crowned (during the debate students realize that every part is important for life and the parts of the cell are interconnected).
Theoretically Awesome Lessons (never actually tried these): What about having students contact researchers who spend their whole lives studying one cell part to reveal how a single vocab word has a huge existence in the real world? What about a game/simulation where the students manage a cell to reveal the dynamic nature of these parts?
In all of these lessons, the students are learning factual content that will help them perform well on multiple choice tests. However the more the students connect those facts to other ideas (the metaphors, the social memory of the debate) the better they will learn. Also the standardized test is a pretty good measure of how well the students learned about cell parts and how engaging the class was.