Monday, April 16, 2012


I often say facts are irrelevant. My wife (who taught school for over 30 years) always argues with me when I say that. I mean it, however. Facts are often disputed, even things we consider as facts.

I remember sitting next to a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education just before I was to give a speech. He was beaming with pride when he told me that finally the Board was insisting that kids learn important historical facts such as when the Civil War started. I was rather surprised and asked him when that was - when the first shot was fired on American soldiers by rebels?; when slavery was introduced into the United States?; when the North freed itself from the economic need for slaves and began to try and force the agrarian South to end slavery?; when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation?; when the first seven rebelling states declared they were no longer part of the Union but instead had formed The Confederate States of America? You can make an argument for all of these "dates." And it is totally unimportant, I think, to have to know them. Instead it is important to want to answer the question; to know how to gather information that might result in an answer; to know how to gather evidence necessary to answer the question; to sort thorough the evidence to reach a tentative conclusion or conclusions; and then to clarify the question and ask new questions in order to start this process all over again.

Many students tell me "It is easy to find someone's opinion about a topic on the internet but finding the actual facts isn't as easy." Correct. In fact we should be as skeptical of "facts" as of opinions. It is the thinking process that I see as critical for an educated person. If we merely dispense "facts" - our facts - then we fail as educators. If we only test for facts, we are doing our students a great disservice. We probably should not test for a knowledge of "facts" at all!


  1. Dr. Strange, I can see your point about facts. The information found on the web can be from anywhere or can be from anyone who thinks that they know "facts". The truth is that if you were not there to witness it, how do we know that it really happened the way that person claims it did. Everyone in history has his/her own perspective on historical events and has written what he/she feels to be the truth. I am a Secondary Education/SocialSciences major and I I know...that I am going to take your advice and not teach my students just dates. I would rather them, as you said, "...gather evidence..." so that my students get an understanding of what happened in past events, such as the Civil War, Civil Rights, The American Revolution, The 1st and 2nd Continental Congress, etc. Children are too dependent on textbooks and and the information they contain. They are not dependent enough on researching what questions that they may be curious about or researching further the information in those textbooks.

  2. Dr. Strange,
    I agree with you that you never really know is something is a fact or an opinion. There are so many people out there thinking they know the actual facts and posting them to the web, when actually it is basically just their own opinion of what they that the fact is. It is really easy to find people's opinion on the internet, but to actually find the facts is quite difficult. You have so many different answers to certain questions you present on the web. I also agree that students should actually learn more about a specific date, then actually just memorizing the date and only one thing that took place that day. I also think the thinking process is critical for any person. You should always want to know more about a certain subject or idea. Be curious and research more in depth things you are unsure about. This will help students out in the long run, it pays to be curious. I also think students should not be tested on facts, cause who is to say what the real fact actually is; there could be many different opinions on answers to certain fact questions.

  3. Dr. Strange,
    I don't think that facts are irrelevant in all fields. In the above blog post, you referred to a conversation with a man about facts in American History. I can see where learning the exact dates of certain events in history isn't productive. However, it is very important to know about Boyle's Law in Chemistry, without fully knowing and being able to use Boyle's Law one cannot progress in Chemistry. Where does one draw the line about what facts should and shouldn't be "taught?"

    In your final paragraph, you mention the usage of the internet in fact finding and checking.
    I think that one should use the same care in selecting a reliable website as one does in finding reliable sources for research papers or anything else where accuracy matters.

    I believe in facts and do not think they are irrelevant. However, I heard a very interesting story on NPR today that was titled 'The Death Of Facts In An Age Of 'Truthiness' It seems that you and NPR agree that facts are no longer in the grand scheme of things. Here is a link to the NPR story:

    Eleanor Pomerat

  4. Thank you for the link. i will listen to it!

    A base of knowledge appropriate for the work at hand, a proclivity to ask questions, a genuine skepticism about all claims of "truth," an eagerness to seek out information and compare versions of that information, an ability to make good judgements about sources (based on a variety of information - evidence, prejudices, motivations, etc.), an a willingness to find out for yourself are the traits I would like to develop in all students. Too many, however, just do enough to get a grade that they want as expressed by Susie Salter in Blog Post 12A:

    "We have learned over the years what we have to do to get by. We know exactly how much effort we have to put into a class to get the grade we want. When we seem less "creative," it is not that we cannot be creative or curious. In elementary school, we want to learn for the sake of learning, but as we move up the ladder, we have more social responsibilities. The work for school also keeps piling up. By the time we reach college, we realize that our lives will be so much easier if we can weed out tasks that are unnecessary. Contrary to what some teachers think, most people have other things they would rather do than sit around and philosophize all day. Yes, we do the minimum, but I say that this behavior is adaptive. If we did every school task to the maximum, we couldn't get a higher grade than an "A," and we would lose all social communication. We have to communicate with others. It makes us healthier as individuals. We can't just sit at a computer all day (most of us).

    Susie is also extremely pessimistic that the educational system, teachers in particular, can do anything to address this issue except require "less work."

    What can teachers do to fix this "slacker behavior?" Nothing really. No matter what kind of work we have given to us, we are going to figure out how much effort we have to put into it. That is a survival instinct. The only suggestion I can give to teachers and to myself is to give less work. Make the work students do meaningful. Nobody wants to spend hours doing busy-work. If I had a lighter workload, I would feel more inclined to put more effort into a task."

    My first wife was a sociology and math (double) major. She could never remember the formula for permutations and combinations. I couldn't either, but I could always reconstruct the formulas because I understood how they were originally constructed. Although I know nothing about chemistry, I imagine the same would apply. It is the understanding that is important. Actually, that is what you say: "without fully knowing and being able to use Boyle's Law one cannot progress in Chemistry" if I take your "knowing" to be my "understanding.

    Thanks for this thought provoking comment! That is what makes the world go round - for me at least!

  5. As a history major, I can tell you there are no real facts. Generally history is written from the victors. For example, pretty much everything we know about the Druids was written by the Romans who didn't much care for them. The Druids to our current knowledge did not leave a written history. So much of what we think we know is as Paul Simon said, "...Crap I learned in high school."

  6. Dr. Strange,
    I agree that facts are hard to find. It is difficult to decipher with something is fact or just opinion. A lot of people think they know the "true facts" of an event or situation when it is really what they believe as true. In school, we are drilled with so called "facts" that we are suppose to accept as true. We are told of important dates or events that we are suppose to have locked in our brain. It is hard to truly remember this information therefore, we need to learn more details about the certain dates. I think that every student should think critically and want to gather more information about a subject. When we are unsure of something, we should be curious and research more information on this topic. When I become a teacher, my students will be given details and not just statements and dates.

  7. I agree that facts are not the most important aspect of education. I think we should be teaching an overall understanding of the Historical events. My American History teacher, at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, did not teach or test on specific dates. She wanted to be sure that we understood the what's and why's of American History. I learned so much in her class, and I feel like I have a better understanding of our Country's history.

  8. Dr. Strange I agree that we can get too caught up in the dry recitation of facts and dates. it seems to me that what matters is context. As a teacher of history I am always concerned about losing the flesh and blood of the story. The human angle is what draws a student in.
    I recently listened to a lecture on western music and the birth of rock and roll music. It traced the different strands of music from around the world as they coalesced in America and eventually melded into what we call Rock and Roll. The lecturer asked who was the first rock and roller? Elvis? Why not Ike Turner who wrote and recorded the song Rocket 88 long before Elvis recorded? Why not Louis Jordan and The Tympani Five who recorded what was called "Jump" music even earlier?
    The answer was; It is Elvis because we all have agreed it is Elvis and in reality his claim is just as good as anyone else.

  9. Hi Dr. Strange.

    This topic makes me think back to when I was in elementary school. I had some teachers who were all about making us memorize facts. When it came time for a test, I would memorize what was needed and then forget about it after the test. Memorizing facts didn't seem to teach me too much.

    I also had teachers who didn't focus so much on the facts. They would teach us certain skills and then make us apply them to figure out how to do something. These were always the hardest teachers.

    If you would have asked me then what teachers I liked better, I would have said the ones who made us memorize facts. This would have been based on how easy their class was. I understand now that the other teachers were in fact the better teachers. Sure, their classes might have been harder, but I still remember what I learned today.

    While I believe that facts aren't quite as important as learning skills to apply, I believe learning some facts are absolutely necessary.

  10. I think that the students' knowledge of facts is important for an educational purpose. The state mandates that students must learn the facts and be tested on them. Because of NCLB, teachers are given ridiculous testing expectations. Sadly, this form of testing does not encourage a child's ability to think on a higher level. For this reason, teachers "teach the test" rather than encourage higher order thinking. Everyone knows facts are only necessary for a foundation of learning and thinking, but when rote memorization is encouraged through testing, we don't really have a choice of what to teach. It has already been decided for us.

  11. Dr. Strange,

    I am a history education major, and of course, facts are important in that field. Having said that, I feel that grasping a concept is MUCH more important than memorizing a fact. Memorization falls under your idea of "burp back education" if you ask me, and I hate that as much as you do!

    Also, I agree with what you said about finding facts on the internet. It is so hard to know if what you have found is true. That is why I feel that "facts" shouldn't be required in say a research paper or a project of some sort. We shouldn't, as educators, base our assignments off of facts. I feel that we should give our students something to THINK about, so that they can use their brain for something other than memorization!

  12. Hello Dr. Strange,

    This topic brings back so many memories from when I was coming up in school. Learning so many dates in history and not know why the event happen. Doing timelines in class or just remembering a date for a test. After graduating from high school, I can really say I have no clue why some of the historic events took place.

    Students should be able to use the internet and find reliable source of information oh any subject for facts. Most site are not reliable, but knowing your dates and information on hand should be a help. I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Dr. Strange,

    Love this post and that's a fact! This is seriously a great topic for educators and the "educated." I teach middle school language arts and literature in the United States and find "facts" to be very lucrative indeed. I think that in science and mathematics, there are some facts, but in many areas, there are only current thoughts, opinions, and/or trends.

    I hope to instill some degree of skepticism and a willingness to question in students I have. I would also add that I try to point out that language, the English language in particular, are organic and do change. That is why I try to get to the idea of clearly communicating as opposed to memorizing grammar or punctuation rules.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

    Scott Boylen

  14. Hi Dr. Strange,

    I really like this blog post! As I was reading it I was agreeing out loud. I remember when I was in high school, having to memorize dates just so I could pass a test and then forgetting them within the next week. I do feel that it is important that students be able to gather information about a particular date instead of having to know that date. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing!
    Kayla Johnson

  15. I love this post! I agree completely with you about facts being irrelevant. I recently took a Western Civilization course here at South, and I was lucky to have a professor that stressed grasping the concept while incorporating facts to support an idea. Critical thinking took precedence, and I feel I took more out of that course than memorizing facts about the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment. Instead of learning that it happened, I found out why. Thanks for sharing this post!

    Wannetta Fincher

  16. I completely agree with this post! I think too many educators focus more on getting their students to know when something happened rather than why it happened. I can remember learning dates in history while in middle and high school, and I can't tell you any of the dates of events in America's history with the exception of a few. I feel too many of my teachers asked "when did this happen?" instead of "why did this happen?".
    Facts also differ with each person you talk to. Many of the "facts" I learned in middle school history were completely different "facts" that I learned in high school history. If we were not there to witness it, we really don't know how everything played out.
    Taylor Rounsaville

  17. I agree with this post too. I also like what you said Taylor Rounsaville about being in school and having to remember a ton of dates but not really know why the dates were important or the series events which led up to the date in question to make it important. I cannot remember any dates which I had to learn in school either. The only date I can remember is something 42 Colombus sailed the ocean blue and the only reason I remember that is because it was a cute saying.
    I agree Dr. Strange if all we are testing our students on is facts then they learn nothing because anyone can remember a fact for a test but why is it important? What happened for this fact to result in the way it did. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this post and it is something I have thought of for awhile because not a lot of teachers think outside the textbook.