Introduction to the Free Online Book,
Teaching About Thinking; Thinking About Teaching:
Why Teaching "Facts" Is Not Enough
by Richard Garlikov

If a football coach said during the summer that he was striving for a winning, or, perhaps, an 8-3 record in the upcoming season, would that be a good thing or not? 

If the CEO of a company planned and expected to show a 10% increase in profits for the upcoming year, would that be a good thing or not? 

In the first case, those of you who are football-wise would answer that it depends on the circumstances. If it were a new program or a 're-building' year, or an injury-plagued year, or if the team's schedule were incredibly difficult, a winning season or an 8-3 record might be a worthy goal. But if this coach had an experienced team with great players, striving for 8-3 would be to have too low expectations that might even jeopardize a potential championship season.

In the business case, again it would depend on the circumstances. With the right plan, could the company grow 20% or more instead of just 10%? Would a 5% growth with investment of capital or investment in employee training, yield twice or five-fold the profit over five years that the 10% short term increase sacrifices? Is the 10% growth going to come at the expense of the health or well-being of employees or of the environment? Will it be generated by taking advantage of naive consumers? 

One always has to ask not only about what is happening, but about what is not happening that ought to be.

Yet few people question the goals set by schools, school districts, or state departments of education based on graduation exam scores or standardized test scores, even though they are the academic equivalent of the above.

  • Could the scores be even better through some educational program other than requiring students to memorize material to be covered on the tests? 
  • Do the methods currently employed to achieve scores sacrifice something that would be far more valuable for students in either the short or long run? 
  • Are there more important indicators of the quality of student education than standardized test scores? 
  • Do the goals, based on improving standardized test scores, intended to elevate socio-economically disadvantaged school children actually impede their education?
  • Do they impede the education of even those socio-economically advantaged students who typically do well on standardized exams?
  • Are there important things students should learn in school that standardized test scores do not even test and that are not even addressed in the curriculum? 
The answer to each of these questions is "yes"! Students who are inspired to be curious and who learn for underlying understanding rather than for memorization of mere facts will generally know more and be able to figure out more, and will score better on standardized tests. Students who learn primarily by memorization simply for school tests, or who complete busy-work projects simply to achieve grades-- will generally "burn out" and lose their curiosity, joy in learning, and sense of wonder and awe long before they will have discovered and contributed whatever they might have in life. Students who are merely taught facts and who are taught formulas, derivations, theories, and someone else's interpretations as though they were simply facts, will generally not learn how to make use of those facts or formulas nor learn how to analyze or derive material or think for themselves. Preparation for standardized tests, and for the similar content of various state curriculum guides, take up so much time and energy for teachers and for students that there is little left over to learn useful, challenging, and stimulating things. When students who learn early in their lives to communicate well and clearly through speaking, reading, and writing, then spend substantial time and energy in schools and on homework reinforcing those skills at the same, relatively low level, their time and potential ability are being squandered. Schools (even in more socio-economically advantaged districts that generally have better test scores) spend so much time and resources making certain students do well on low level skills tests that they neglect the education that would most benefit most of those students. Even students in schools which traditionally do poorly on standardized tests could spend their academic time far more profitably learning more intellectually challenging material than by preparing for these tests through drill and rote memorization.

For a state or nation to set the same set of standards for all students or all districts or schools, even if they call them minimal standards, is no different from a coach always striving for an 8-3 season regardless of the talent available to him. Teaching students facts alone does not educate them to their potential. Rather than elevating them to an 8-3 season, it holds them back to 8-3 ... or worse.

This is not to say that students should not be taught facts. Of course they need to know certain kinds of fundamental facts and they need to know how to go about finding other facts they might need, but they also need to be able to reason, using the facts they have, and they need to be able to evaluate facts they are given, and to be able to make rational judgments. It is as important to be able to exercise sound judgment in life, based on information available, as it to have information available. Purely factual information is almost never sufficient.

For example, when our children's pediatrician told us of the Haemophilus influenzae type B virus vaccine, he gave us the following facts:

  • (1) 90% or more of meningitis comes from this virus. 
  • (2) The vaccine prevents children from getting Haemophilus influenza type B when they are inoculated with it at the right age.
He asked then, given these facts, whether we wanted to have our children inoculated with the vaccine. He gave us the pharmaceutical company's brochure that essentially stated those same facts. Do these facts make the vaccine a good thing to give one's child? The pharmaceutical company and the physician thought so.

The answer is that these facts alone do not show the vaccine to be a good thing to give your child, even though it turns out, from additional information, that the vaccine is a good thing to give children, as far as is known so far. The above facts are insufficient to make a good decision about using the vaccine because they do not tell what the potential risks (side-effects and their frequency of occurrence) of the vaccine are, and they do not tell the likelihood of getting either this influenza or meningitis from the influenza if one even contracts that flu. The fact that 90% of meningitis is caused by this flu does not mean that this flu is likely to cause meningitis, any more than the fact that 100% of convicted killers were once babies means that babies are likely to become killers. 

The above two facts can be true and it still be true that there is more danger from taking the vaccine than from not taking the vaccine. If the incidence of flu is low, and the risk of meningitis even if you have the flu is also low, and if the incidence of serious side-effects from the vaccine is relatively high in proportion to those two risks, the vaccine is not a good bet. Smallpox vaccine is no longer routinely given to children in the United States precisely because the risk of harm from the vaccine is now far greater than the risk of smallpox. In the case of the Haemophilus virus and vaccine, however, the missing facts turn out to be, as far as I have found out from two different sources, that there have been no serious side effects reported or found for any children, and the risk of getting meningitis resulting in brain damage or death, although small, is real. But the facts given by the physician and by the pharmaceutical company, do not alone, support the conclusion -- though they seem to -- that the vaccine is a good thing to give one's children.

Now there are many good ways to teach or foster reasoning and analytic skills in schools. The point is that teachers and school districts should be seeking to find and implement them, and parents and students should be expecting them. Unfortunately, in recent years a number of flawed or misguided techniques and programs have become marketed to teachers and to parents which are supposed to teach "critical thinking" -- one of the educational fads of the 90's. Many of these are not very good or very useful. All some of them do is substitute one form of memorization for another. A technique may stress analyzing or interpreting material, but if all students do is memorize the teacher's or book's analysis or interpretation for a test, that will not help, because memorizing and repeating someone else's analysis is not the same thing as actually analyzing something. Most students finish their year in plane geometry -- which is supposed to be a course about the power of deductive thinking-- without realizing that all the theorems they have studied are actually deduced and derived from obvious axioms and postulates. Most students simply try to memorize the "proofs" without even seeing them as logically following from things they already know and actually being related to each other. They just learn geometry as a bunch of mathematical facts.

It is also important to recognize that fostering understanding is not something to be done only for high school students, only for affluent suburban school students, or only for students who have already learned all their facts or who have received good grades in fact-memorizing courses. Fostering understanding can be done, and needs to be done, from the earliest possible ages, with students from almost any background. Teaching for understanding works with young children as well as older children, for students with poor grades as well as students with good grades, for inner city or rural students as well as those in the suburbs. Kindergarten students can figure out all kinds of interesting things for themselves if they are asked the right questions. I have taught philosophy courses to students at the University of Michigan, which is an academically highly selective school, and I have taught it at a rural community college in Alabama and an inner city community college in Alabama. The students in both community schools were every bit as good as the students in the Michigan courses; the inner city black students were superior, in doing introductory philosophy, to the Michigan students. The ability to think and reason well is not relegated to just students who can get good grades in typical school courses or who can memorize material. One of my inner city students had terrible grades in his career up to that point but was, I thought, extremely perceptive, intelligent, reasonable, and knowledgeable. I sent him over to interview with professors from a regionally prestigious and selective university and asked them to ignore his transcripts and just talk with him to see whether they would let him attend. They called back and said he was the most impressive student they had ever met. They accepted him. 

Finally, although teachers are not generally trained to foster student rationality or truly open-ended inquiry, potential material for those endeavors is readily available in almost any class or any situation throughout school. Teachers simply must look for it, be open to recognizing it, and have the temperament and curiosity to deal with it. Numerous examples are possible but let me close with one.

When a new middle school opened a few years ago, sixth and seventh grade students voted in the spring for student government officers for the following year. At the time of the election, seventh graders outnumbered sixth graders in this school by a substantial margin. They voted for "their own", and the seventh graders therefore won all the offices. The sixth graders felt this was unfair, but that was the end of the matter. 

In a school (system) where honest and meaningful inquiry was a primary goal, that would have been an excellent opportunity to raise, study, and reflect about the issue of what constitutes, and how best to try to achieve, fair numerical minority representation in a democracy -- representation that not only allows numerical minorities to vote, but to have their needs taken seriously by a majority that does not really need their votes to triumph. The "tyranny of the majority" is a very real problem for democracies; it is addressed historically, legally, and philosophically in numerous ways. The Constitution of the United States, as constitutions in many democratic countries, incorporates many formal, structural ways to try to resolve it. While achieving some success in this regard, there are also notable historic failures. Civil wars and civil unrest often result from the inability of numerical minorities to have their needs and interests taken seriously by the majority. This is an unsolved problem still today for all democratic governments at all levels of government, and potential solutions are still being invented and put forward. But most Americans mistakenly believe that democracy is only about simple majority rule. 

The student government election in this particular school would have afforded an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the whole issue of the concept of democracy and the difference between majority rule and majority tyranny -- from historical, philosophical, political science, legal, ethical, and psychological perspectives. It was an opportunity missed. Four years later, when those same students, then in the tenth grade, studied American history and the formation of the American government, and the eventual Civil War, none of the students raised the example of that school election, or saw it, as being related to anything they were studying. In the sixth grade, an extremely important "teachable moment" had been squandered, because supposedly "important" factual material had to be covered that had been set in stone by the curriculum guidelines for the state and by the nature of the tests whose scores the state department and the community valued.  While these students, from an affluent suburban school district did well on such tests, they were robbed of an important and valuable part of their education.  They went 8-3, when they should have been able to go undefeated.


Reset July 16, 2000