“Nothing but the Facts”

 “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon the Facts: nothing ever will be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!”

(Thomas Grandgrid,From Hard Times by Charles Dickens)

     The entire infrastructure of schooling is the belief that knowledge is stable. The design of school organizations, the certification of teachers, the materials used in classrooms, the organization of the curriculum, the assessment of student progress, the awarding of credits are all based on the assumption that knowledge—facts, concepts, procedures—can be defined, categorized, and quantified. Bloom’s taxonomy best exemplifies this belief in action with lesson plans filled with lesson objectives asking students to “define,” to “identify,” to “label,” to “name.” Although actual lessons in schools rarely advance beyond knowledge and comprehension verbs, Bloom does include behavioral terms requiring students to demonstrate their ability to apply all the facts, concepts, and procedures they have memorized to higher level cognitive functions— to analyze, to synthesize, to evaluate.

     Even in instances when lesson plans include a higher-level cognitive function, that function, in the words of John Dewey, amounts to a contrived school problem that follows a taught formulaic response. The five-paragraph essay best illustrates how a valued educational goal is reduced to a routine procedure that can be evaluated within the parameters of an institutional metric.

     The fundamental flaw with institutional conceptions of knowledge, is not recognizing that all knowledge is relational. All real-world experiences, whether they be intellectual or social or sensorial or personal, are holistic encounters with our natural or social world. In other words, our encounters with the world outside of school are composed of all eight parts of speech, just not a verb and not just a noun. Life gets interesting and often perplexing when you mix in adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions.

     Most teachers reading this would agree on the relational nature of knowledge, but, being a prisoner of an institutional mindset, would assert that before students can perform any of the higher cognitive functions listed by Bloom, they first must learn, actually memorize, a whole host of definitions, facts, procedures, formulas. The institutional narrative continues with students being told that at some point in the future—the future always remaining vague, they will be asked to put all this information to use.

     The last part of the institutional narrative is claiming that without knowing the meaning or function of a piece of information, you will face a dismal personal and occupation future. What most of us find out in the occupations we end up in is employers care little about our factual knowledge; they care a whole lot about our ability to apply that knowledge to problems or assigned tasks. There is no set menu of facts, concepts, or procedures that apply to real world problems, dilemmas, or encounters. Rather we are all thrown into occupations, into relationships, into situations where we encounter a buffet of facts, concepts, and procedures laid out on a real world serving table with the directive to select out a mix of these facts, concepts, and procedures that have the best possibility of solving a problem or completing a task.

     As you become more experienced, you turn your attention away from how you are filling up your problem-solving plate, and instead, study what is on other plates around you. Those that excel in their occupational fields acquire the ability to pick the right plate or combination of plates to solve an organizational problem or spark an innovative turn. The point being, the best preparation for being successful in a twenty-first century global economy, is the habit of thinking relationally—how do fact, concepts, procedures fit together. Thinking discretely will serve you well on institutional assessments—filling in bubbles—but prepares you poorly for what bubbles matter most and how to arrange those bubbles in ways that solve real world problems or complete real world tasks.

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