Just the facts Ma’am

I went looking for a picture of the Blues Brothers because I thought that the old ‘just the facts, ma’am’ quote came from them, but I found that the quote actually came originally from a much earlier TV series called Dragnet, which I vaguely remember from the black and white TV past, and which the Blues Brothers were clearly parodying. (hence pic above)

And what inspired this rash burst of reckless Googling? The Guardian article TODAY which reported new UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb lamenting that students were leaving school not knowing enough facts. And gave the startling example that some UK students were leaving school not knowing who Miss Havisham was!

Now, before I go on, I submit this brief multiple choice exercise, which you may choose to ignore. Miss Havisham was:

  1. The real name of Queen Victoria
  2. The maiden name of the wife of UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb
  3. A fictional character created by Charles Dickens
  4. The tall one of the Spice Girls.

If you followed multiple choice logic that stipulates ‘when in doubt, always choose C’ you’d be right. Below is Sian Phillips playing Miss Havisham.

But is this an important fact that all students should leave school knowing? I wonder. According to the article:

Today’s schoolchildren lack basic facts, such as who Miss Havisham is or who was in charge at the battle of Waterloo, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said today.

“Knowledge is a basic building block for a successful life” and children need a grasp of the facts to master subjects such as science, maths, English and history, said Gibb. Instead, the education system is downplaying knowledge and concentrating on teaching “skills”.

He told a Reform conference in London: “Getting to grips with the basics – of elements, of metals, of halogens, of acids, of what happens when hydrogen and oxygen come together, of photosynthesis, of cells – is difficult. But once learned, you have the ability to comprehend some of the great advances in genetics, physics and other scientific fields that are revolutionising our lives.”

Gibb extended this argument to history, geography and English literature.

“The facts, dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together. The rich language of Shakespeare should be the common property of us all. The great figures of literature that still populate the conversations of all those who regard themselves as well-educated should be known to all.

“Yet to more and more people, Miss Havisham is a stranger – and even the most basic history and geography a mystery.

“These concepts must be taught. And they must be taught to everyone. Sadly, that is not always the case.”

I’ve had this discussion with a number of teachers over the years; often as they’ve come to me frustrated that this generation doesn’t seem to ‘know’ anything. That they don’t know basic ‘facts’ and that it was our job to teach them those facts.

All laudable stuff, and I couldn’t agree more about our responsibility to our students, but what facts?

As soon as you enter that part of the conversation it gets trickier and pricklier. In the not-so-recent past Geography students had to memorise the names of the rivers of south-eastern Australia and I seemed to spend much of my time in primary school drawing the routes of the early explorers into the blank outline maps of Australia they provided. Recent governments have played around with Verse 2 of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and the tale of Simpson and his donkey as ‘essential facts’. Are they? The trouble is everyone has a different list of the essential facts: the works of Shakespeare, Bible stories, the table of chemical elements, what’s a triangle, the names of the great artists or the essential elements of the internal combustion engine. Write down your essentials and put it next to another teachers, and they don’t match.

Maybe, just maybe, it might be better to look again at skills, at how students can learn to learn, can become inquiring and interested and questioning about the world and know the tools, strategies and skills to find out what they need to know? I’m all in favour of the grand narratives that drive the imagination and I’m not against facts. They can be important too, but the facts that are important to me, may not be the ones you need.



  1. Interesting- I had a conversation at work the other day (inspired by a tweet from @psychmedia) along similar lines. The idea being that with Google/Internet there are very few “facts” we need to know and remember, but we need to be excellent at finding answers when needed (good search skills, information literacy etc). The question then being, how do you assess those skills rather than “arbitrary” recall of knowledge.

    However, there’s a different issue – if taken to extremes and you imagine someone who knows nothing but has the skills to find facts when needed, a) how do they assess the veracity of “facts” with no framework against which to assess them, b) how could they formulate suitable search criteria since usually you need some understanding of related knowledge c) could such a person synthesise new ideas, knew knowledge?

    With that in mind, I think there are certain “hooks” of knowledge which one would need in order to build a framework of understanding. So the question is rightly, what are those core hooks?

    I suspect they could best be defined with the vague “the minimum set of information needed for a particular individual to form their own internal framework of understanding of a subject” as I would expect some to grasp an appreciation of a subject on the basis of much less…in the same way some might see a pattern in data on the basis of fewer points.

    These days, “knowledge” seems much less valuable than “knowledge skills” – I think it was Martin Bean I remember putting it well as “knowledge-able is more important than knowledgeable” at Alt-C

    Who should decide what key knowledge/fact hooks individuals should be taught and how many then? Well, who else but the individual themselves?

    Do I feel it’s important to know who Miss Havisham is? No, not at all. I conscider myself well educated, knowledgeable in a number of subjects and generally knowledge-able and I’m sure if ever I needed to know chapter and verse about Miss Havisham, I could find it within 20 seconds with Google and could then talk knowledgeably about her role and importance after about 10 minutes reading. Would I remember it an hour later? Probably not. Does that matter? Almost certainly not.

    However, if I needed to appreciate the characters importance I would almost certainly need to already have some appreciation of the historical context, some hooks around dates in history to allow me to have formed an internal framework of relative dates of certain periods in history (eg that just because it was written in the past, it wasn’t about the Romans or Egyptians or people living in caves and dinosaurs wouldn’t be expected to wander past). What “facts” would be needed for me to have that framework? That’s probably individual and somewhat arbitrary.

    Times they are a changing and what we should expect people to “know” is changing, but most importantly, what we mean by “know” is changing to encompass all knowledge there is being available to everyone, and it’s what we can do with that artificial extended group memory that becomes important.

  2. Surely with the easy access to ‘facts’ on the internet, we are better off teaching kids how to access, analyse and evaluate the validity of those facts?

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