Daily Politics soapbox – facts are vital

Today I was on the Daily Politics soapbox talking about why facts are vital for learning. Click on the image below to see the video on the BBC website.


For more information about the research I refer to, see my book, Seven Myths about Education, available here.

The short video was filmed at the Ragged School Museum in East London. It is a lovely little museum just round the back of the Mile End Road. The building was one of Doctor Barnado’s original ragged schools in the late 19th century, set up to educate the poor of the East End. It closed in 1908, and in 1990 it was turned into a museum. As well as some permanent displays, children can take part in an authentic Victorian lesson, taught by the rather formidable lady in the video. My mother and father grew up not far from this school, although I feel I should point out they are not quite old enough to have actually attended it. I also grew up in East London not far from the museum and can remember visiting the museum as a child. It is definitely worth visiting, or taking a school trip to.


2 thoughts on “Daily Politics soapbox – facts are vital

  1. Chandra Z Khushwant

    Facts are vital you say. I just heard your 30 min segment on “The Educators” on Radio 4. I guesstimated several things from it – mainly from the things I am going to say at the end.
    1. You do not understand (or have a clear definition of) the distinctions between facts, knowledge or skills. An example is what is grammar? I would say that it is knowledge of how a language works such that one can use that language, but it also is how someone (or a group) uses a language which in turn could be a skill.
    2. You kept going on about the dichotomy between fact and skill based learning, then denied there was a dichotomy, and then kept asserting the primacy of fact or knowledge based learning (not appearing to understand there is a distinction between the two) over skills based learning.
    3. What is the distinction? I cannot for the life of me imagine a class where there were no facts and only skills were being learnt, or the other way around. As you kept pointing out in order to learn skills you need facts – and that is what current practice is. Maybe it is the facts they teach you do not like.
    4. When I was at school (70s – very academic school with very good exam results) it was very much the skills that were tested by exams – because they aimed at teaching people how to think/problem-solve – which I would say was more a skill, or akin to a skill than a fact. Of course, one could say that the knowledge of a scientific formula is a fact which is applied – but it was how one applied it they measured and frequently the marking schema then allocated far less to the “right answer” than the “right reasoning” with a minor error. It was not intended that memory would be the main thing tested.
    5. You kept referring to “all the research” or “all the science” supporting your position using research in “cognitive psychology” and “long-term memory”. This could only be the case if you were suffering a severe case of confirmation bias (deliberate or unconscious). As far as I know the book is not closed on how the brain works or develops though there is some very interesting work being done in psychology and brain neurochemistry at present. Interestingly ,my non-academic research indicates that for early years (up to 6) the science appears to confirm much earlier observational work and theories of people such as Piaget – which is that exploration and discovery by children, and learning through play, are much more important (for this age range) than didactic teaching. Of course I accept that as kids get older how and what they learn changes – however, my understanding from the science is that this is so complex an area that facile comments as to what learning is in scientific terms is simply misleading. I would like to see your citations.
    6. All of the above was exemplified (though I have to say I was subject to confirmation bias on my own hypothesis about your thinking) by your comment about Herbert Simon. I had never heard of him so it was with interest I heard you say that he supported your ideas and had got a Nobel Prize (though you did say in a different area). You then said that he had done work on expertise and it supported your ideas as it said that you had to have lot of information or facts on easy recall (and so have a good long-term memory, etc, etc). It immediately occurred to me that if a Nobel Prize winner was talking about expertise it must be a high level of expertise. It then occurred to me that if a Nobel Prize winner was talking about expertise, he would mean expertise in the ordinary meaning of the word – a specialist with a high degree of knowledge or skill in a particular area. Surely he would not be talking about a kid learning a basic level of maths to pass GCSE Maths or even A level. Who would define that as expertise? The answer – you would. Not the Herbert SImon who a minimal amount of research shows is talking about expertise in the normal adult sense which he said would require about 10 years of experience (presumably one’s own education does not count as experience) and/or 50,000 chunks of information. As this is clearly not to do with school, and worse is concerned with people who operate on a higher level than the vast majority of the population what possible relevance could this have for educational policy, theory or practice?
    It seems to me that you are putting yourself up as an inter-disciplinary expert on various subjects which have implications for education without having the required Simonian minimum in any of them, including education. I would be happy to debate these questions in public with you (with a short time to do some research before). Some of what you say appears to me may have some basis but it so obscured by a welter of self-serving and ill-researched conjecture that anything of value is hard to glean.
    As I believe people should be open and declare their interests I will tell you that I am a barrister of nearly 20 years experience and so in theory my expertise is argument/law. However, I would say that if I did have any expertise it would be in very particular and obscure areas of law and evidence, though I still would not describe myself as an expert, more an experienced practitioner with some particular areas of expertise. Do you describe yourself as an expert? Or hold yourself out as one?


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