Follow-up on cheating – Questions about facts

Charles asked some good questions in a comment on my post on cheating.  They are important questions.  And they make me realize how imprecise I was when I wrote that post.

Charles asks:

Just questions. How do you teach someone to think about facts or to put them together without teaching them facts? Can one think about facts out of context? How does one reach an understanding of the context for facts without knowing the facts, too?

It is obvious that you have to know the facts before you can think critically about them.  What I should have said is that we don’t make the facts the important part of the lesson.  Teach them the facts.  (Although I think we have to be careful about what we call facts when we are teaching.  But that is another issue, I think.) But that isn’t what they should be held responsible for.  They should be help responsible for what they can do with the facts.

I started life (or at least it was so long ago it seems like I did!) as a history teacher.  Let me use that field and give you an example.  If I am teaching about the Civil War, I could have them memorize the facts: generals, battles, victories, etc.  I could give them a test on which they have to give me that information back.  I am teaching them the facts of the Civil War — as it was taught to me and many of the rest of us, I imagine.  The other option is that I could resent material about the Civil War (including those facts) and then have them do something with the information.  This fall when I do that, one thing my students are going to do is write a letter as a soldier from one side or the other.  It will require them to refer to those facts, but the facts are not the goal.  The goal is to have them understand what life might have been like for a soldier in the civil war, what he might have been thinking and feeling.  They will be free to look up as many of the facts as they need to when they write their letters.  I think that this will be more beneficial to them in terms of learning about that period of US history than having a multiple choice test on the facts in isolation.

Taking that example a step further, this could be a totally independent research project, actually.  I would not have to teach them any facts.  They could look the facts up themselves and then bring that knowledge to class to incorporate into class discussions and other activities.  This goes back to a discussion Charles and I had a long time ago: What is the role of the teacher – facilitator or expert?  I fall squarely on the facilitator side of that question.  Even if we learn facts, I don’t need to be the one to dispense them.

So thanks, Charles, for drawing my attention to a weakness in my other post.  I think the clarification was necessary.

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