Principles for teaching facts

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role–multiple roles really–that The Facts play in my history class, and I’ve evolved some principles for myself that I hope will make the myriad ad hoc decisions I make in the course of a year easier.


Memorization (Photo credit: Jesse Gardner)

1) It’s important to distinguish–for myself and for my students–between facts that need to be learned by heart, facts that need to be understood, and facts that need to be synthesized, organized and made accessible for the completion of other tasks.

2) For every piece of information I ask students to spend time memorizing, I should have some specific reason in mind.  The most common justification for memorization, I think, is utility: quick access to certain facts and ideas may be important to facilitate further inquiry, for example–we won’t get far in exploring Jefferson’s legacy if students have to stop and say, “Wait, who is Jefferson again?”

There are other sorts of justifications, though for memorization.  One is emphasis.  If chosen carefully, the things you ask students to memorize say something about the things you value. Here’s an example of that from Matt Rozell’s interesting blog on history teaching.  In asking students to memorize the preamble to the Constitution, he lays the groundwork for a shared awareness of it to which a class could return throughout the year.  He also makes it clear that these founding ideas are important.  If he asked students to memorize one passage a week, on the other hand, the effect might be different.

3) Memorization should be a small part of the things students do with facts in my class.  In itself, memorization is a fairly passive activity.  It works against the idea of inquiry, exploration, and argument by suggesting that there are a set of pat answers that can simply be absorbed without questioning. It puts all the power in the hands of the person providing the material to be memorized.

4) Technical understandings should be promptly assessed in another context. Understanding is not the same as memorizing. Too often in history, I see learning objectives that read, “Students should understand that X” coupled with lessons that seek to reach that goal by, essentially, saying “Tell students X.”  Some facts can be defined and memorized without explanation–students may need to know that Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican before embarking on a re-enactment of his campaign–and that’s fine, but complex understandings can’t.  To be sure they understand, students need to be able to test, transfer, and apply those understandings.

5) Memorization and transfer of technical understandings should be as efficient as possible.  These are tools, things we need to get on the table before the interesting stuff can happen.  As such, it makes sense for me to make them as easy to acquire as possible.  Making students guess about them just takes up time and makes them loom larger than they should.

Lebanon facts and numbers

Lebanon facts and numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6) In the synthesized/organized/familiarized category, more facts are good. Memorization leads to passivity.  Facts, qua facts, do not. If students are to argue with historians and each other, they need ammunition, and that ammunition is best drawn from a rich, deep, and varied pool of evidence.  It also seems to me useful if some of those facts are contradictory:  that is, after all, part of the nature of evidence, and artificially eliminating it makes it much harder for students to reach a conclusion that is truly theirs.

7) Sophisticated synthesis of information is a learned skill, and an important one. Students need to learn to summarize, prioritize, and classify material.  These are skills they will use in almost any pursuit.  We ask them to use these skills often in high school classes, but we rarely discuss them seriously as intellectual tasks.  To master them, students need both explicit guidance and independent practice:  filling out teacher-generated graphic organizers or study guides does relatively little to teach these skills.

8) The collection of information should be as goal driven as possible. When was the last time in your adult life that you needed to compile a measured amount (say 1 page) of facts about a subject without any particular purpose?  Even a simple goal–make the case for the best route from Constantinople to Xi’an or (here’s an example I borrowed from my colleague, David Neale) sell “your” battle as the most important of the Civil War–gives meaning to the collection of information and introduces an element of active thought that is missing if I simply give students a list of questions to answer.

Those are my rules.  What are yours?


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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One Response to Principles for teaching facts

  1. Pingback: Working with facts in a history class | wordsarestrong

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