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:
- The real name of Queen Victoria
- The maiden name of the wife of UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb
- A fictional character created by Charles Dickens
- 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.