Facts and Learning

Quite some time ago, Nancy McKeand responded to a comment of mine about the role of facts in learning::

It is obvious that you have to know the facts before you can think critically about them.  What I should have said is that we don’t make the facts the important part of the lesson.  Teach them the facts.  (Although I think we have to be careful about what we call facts when we are teaching.  But that is another issue, I think.) But that isn’t what they should be held responsible for.  They should be help responsible for what they can do with the facts.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The ability to use information shows a deeper understanding of that item than simple recitation of information about the item. But I do think we need to carefully think about the types of doing we have students do. For instance, Nancy gives this example:

I started life (or at least it was so long ago it seems like I did!) as a history teacher.  Let me use that field and give you an example.  If I am teaching about the Civil War, I could have them memorize the facts: generals, battles, victories, etc.  I could give them a test on which they have to give me that information back.  I am teaching them the facts of the Civil War – as it was taught to me and many of the rest of us, I imagine.  The other option is that I could resent material about the Civil War (including those facts) and then have them do something with the information.  This fall when I do that, one thing my students are going to do is write a letter as a soldier from one side or the other.  It will require them to refer to those facts, but the facts are not the goal.  The goal is to have them understand what life might have been like for a soldier in the civil war, what he might have been thinking and feeling.  They will be free to look up as many of the facts as they need to when they write their letters.  I think that this will be more beneficial to them in terms of learning about that period of US history than having a multiple choice test on the facts in isolation.

I wonder about this letter exercise. Can they really understand the life of a soldier just by thinking about information? Wouldn’t that be like trying to understand what an apple tastes like without eating it? This doing can build imagination, but I'm not sure that it helps to understand how a soldier was "thinking and feeling."

In addition, it seems to me that the study of history should be to develop the skills of a historian, just as studying biology should develop biologist skills, and so on. (Of course, the expectations for students are adjusted according to their level of experience.) Historian skills focus on using sources: analyzing them critically for bias and motive, considering counterevidence, and so on. None of those skills seem to be applied in the writing of this type of letter.

So, although doing is important for learning, the type of doing needs to be carefully thought out.

McKeand continues,

Taking that example a step further, this could be a totally independent research project, actually.  I would not have to teach them any facts.  They could look the facts up themselves and then bring that knowledge to class to incorporate into class discussions and other activities.  This goes back to a discussion Charles and I had a long time ago: What is the role of the teacher — facilitator or expert?  I fall squarely on the facilitator side of that question.  Even if we learn facts, I don’t need to be the one to dispense them.

On the research project, I've never quite understood why many educators oppose their own dispensing of "facts." Why is it better for students to get the facts from someone else than from themselves?

Or, Why is it better for students to look up the facts themselves? Does it lead to better learning? Do people need to research on their own how nuts and bolts are used? Or can they just be told/shown and then apply that knowledge?

In a previous post on Learning with Examples, I cited Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf):

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.


Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Note that the reason that it might be preferable for students to acquire facts via their own research is due to "redundant encoding" of the facts they come across, but this advantage is offset by their possible misunderstanding the "facts." What is preferable is that learning be tied to "actively trying to solve new problems," applying “facts” to new contexts. As finding information takes time, instructors need to consider what level of facts are given, what level should students research, and what activities can help students learn to apply those "facts" in normal and novel contexts. Again, the doing that we ask students to perform needs to be thought out instead of assuming that all doing is equal.

Others have written in more depth on this topic. Check out Anderson and Schunn's article mentioned above (along with other articles at that site) and read Stephen Downes' An operating system for the mind and Facts versus Skills.