01: All facts are wrong

Google defines the word facts as:

  1. A thing that is indisputably the case.
  2. Information used as evidence or as part of a report or news article.

Facts are an obvious example of surface learning.  Henry the VIII had six wives, our solar system has 9 planets, Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye etc. I was taught these things in school and I remember them now. Except they are all wrong. Or at least not indisputably right.

The TV programme QI delights in debunking these:

  • The International Astronomical Union has downgraded Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, as it is not considered to ‘dominate its environment’.
  • Some of Henry VIII’s marriages were annulled, so the poor ladies in question lost their wifely statuses (there were worst things to lose in Henry’s court).
  • I was taught at school that Harold wasn’t killed by an arrow to the eye. Instead he was hacked to pieces. A quick check on Wikipedia suggest that both might be true. Nice thought.

To understand the significance of these ‘facts’ you need to understand the context in which they located. Facts change, as interpretations change. However, even if a fact remains constant it does not necessarily mean that it has meaning to an individual student.

As part of my Biology GSCE I was made to label parts of a flower. I was given a picture of a flower – not unlike this one – and asked to reproduce it. I did. It was extraordinarily dull. It was extraordinarily pointless. It reduced Biology – a subject that I was once fascinated in – to a terrible grind. I labelled diagrams. I memorised diagrams. I reproduced diagrams in exam conditions. I passed my exam. I lost my interest in Biology.

When every single label had disappeared from my mind, I rediscovered how interesting Biology is (stop sniggering at the back etc.) and begain to learn about it again. I took a university course on animal behaviour, I read biographies about great biologists, I visited natural history museums in every city I could. I wanted to learn.

For me, surface learning is a useful way to describe learning which relies upon facts as the cornerstone of an education. Learning, that places more emphasis on covering a syllabus rather than studying it. As (bad) luck would have it, a fact-based – or ‘knowledge-based – curriculum is high on the UK agenda thanks, in part, to the enthusiasm of Education Secretary Michael Gove. I wonder what Marton and Säljö would make of it?

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