Learners need their heads filled with pure facts – yes or no?

03 Mar 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue over whether facts are the most important things that students can learn.

In recent years in some Western countries there has been a backlash against modern teaching methods that focus on learning techniques and the application of knowledge, rather than the retention of knowledge itself. Some have championed a return to old-fashioned rote learning, arguing that its only by memorising facts that students can then go on to understand them.

Those who argue against this position point out that memorisation and learning are not the same thing, and just because a student can recite a fact doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it. Therefore, they argue, it is misguided and even potentially detrimental to a student’s education to focus solely on the retention of facts.

At the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 we will see two sides commit to proving their points. Here’s how they might go about mounting their cases.

Yes: students need to learn facts

  1. Memorising facts is how we first learn

When children first learn, they learn numbers and letters by rote. Those basic building blocks of numeracy and literacy enable them to move on to more complicated tasks such as reading and basic mathematics. Those who support a facts-first approach to teaching argue that these first steps taken in early childhood should be repeated throughout a child’s educational development. They should first have a thorough grip on facts like multiplication tables, the periodic table and historical events before attempting to apply this knowledge in various ways.

  1. Understanding only occurs through knowledge of facts

In a speech in support of learning by rote, former UK education secretary Michael Gove claimed that “memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding”. You can only claim to have knowledge of something, and therefore an understanding, argued Gove, if recall of information takes no effort at all. The more facts a student can learn, the more knowledge they acquire and the greater understanding they can have of subject areas and issues.

No: facts are only a small part of a good education

  1. Recall of facts doesn’t equate to understanding

Those who argue against rote learning point out that while memory can be a good indicator of knowledge and even intelligence, it isn’t necessarily so, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee understanding. Indeed, memorising a fact isn’t the same as learning it. Students may be able to recite mathematical terms or historical facts with little understanding of how those terms function or the context of the historical facts. A paper by Concordia University in Portland, Oregon argues that repetition of facts in school lessons “the foundation for learning becomes shaky”, and that learning by rote can block the development of skills like critical thinking.

  1. Skills such as critical thinking are more important

Reducing education to the acquisition of facts fails to enable students from establishing methods for continual learning. Students who are “spoon-fed” will struggle with the acquisition and interpretation of information once they leave the safe confines of the classroom. This is of critical importance in the modern global economy. According to the US National Education Association (NEA) over the past 20 years has been a rapid increase in jobs involving non-routine, analytic, and interactive communication skills. In addition to the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic, the core skills crucial for successful future workers are identified as the four Cs:  critical thinking; communication; collaboration and creativity. These skills are not learned through the recitation of facts, but through a variety of teaching methods that include project-based learning and collaborative group work.

So the answer is…

Few in education would argue against the importance of learning facts, and rote learning clearly has a role to play. However, when the memorisation of facts becomes an end rather than a means of learning, it can have a detrimental effect, preventing students from developing more advanced analytical and interpretive skills. Learners should only be filling their heads with facts if they are also being equipped with the tools to unlock and apply this knowledge.

Which side will prevail? Find out by attending the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017, taking place in Dubai on 18th and 19th March. Find out more here.