Saturday, December 12, 2009

Facts vs Thinking

About a week ago the Ottawa Citizen published an editorial called "In Defence of Facts". In it, the argument goes roughly that you cannot have good thoughts unless you start with facts.

It is not that I dislike facts. I have a very good memory and I know tonnes of facts. It is one of the reasons I was a good student in school and it is a small part of my strengths as a teacher. The problem I have is the idea that students cannot do anything useful until they know all the facts. A couple of months ago I was reading a book called Making Learning Whole by David Perkins. Perkins is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One of Perkins' first points is that one simple way of trying to approach complexity by teaching the elements (typically the facts) first and fitting them together later. The problem is that this approach leaves the learner wondering what the point of learning all these facts is. They get told "you will need this later", as if that is actually going to motivate a learner. The end result is that most learners in this method compartmentalize their learning and fail to make useful connections later when they actually need all those facts.

This leads to the second problem, which is that teaching facts to our children is not going to get the job done. There are enormous numbers of Chinese and Indian children learning facts in their schools just as well as our students learn their facts . Since these Asian learners are willing to work for less money than our learners, learning facts will not let our children compete in the new global environment. To compete with China and India and the other emerging nations Canada must focus on value above and beyond the knowledge of facts. Thomas Friedman makes this quite clear in his book, The World is Flat. Creativity, problem solving, entrepreneurship, and other skills that raise people above the average in their professions are the kinds of skills that Canadians need to succeed in the flat world that is happening right now.

If we want our children to succeed, we need education that works with big ideas, that helps students learn to make connections, be creative, solve problems, and more. Fixating on facts will only create a Canada where fewer and fewer of our learners are able to compete and win against the massive numbers of students in Asia.