Do You Really Need to Know Facts?

Heard this before? “Students in the 21st century don’t need to memorize facts. They can always just look it up online.”

There’s a good chance you have strong feelings about this statement. But I’d argue what’s crucial is which facts we’re talking about.

For example, memorizing all the state capitals in the U.S. is probably not useful. That’s something you can easily look up online at any time. But more importantly, knowing the names of the capitals does not contribute to a larger conceptual framework or a deeper understanding. In other words, it can’t be a building block for constructing more fundamental meaning. Hence there’s little reason for most people to commit the capitals to memory.

On the other hand, the number of electrons that can be in each shell of an atom is also a fact, and also something you could look up online. But if you have that information memorized, you can build on that to explain why sodium and chlorine bond to form table salt… or why any two atoms will or will not bond for that matter. Sure, you could look that up for a while, but at some point you need to have that information memorized to have any real understanding of chemical reactions. Knowing those facts is a fundamental building block of understanding, shallow or deep. We could find similar examples of factual “building blocks” for history, math, or any other subject area.

So instead of either elevating or disparaging the memorization of facts, we should think carefully about which facts students need to know. And just as importantly, we need to consider what are they going to be doing with those facts. Because there’s not much use in knowing facts about electrons if you can’t explain how electrons create chemistry… but you can’t explain chemistry without knowing facts about electrons.





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2 Responses to Do You Really Need to Know Facts?

  1. Anna says:

    Absolutely! We need foundational knowledge… Knowledge that feeds our ability to reason and explain and show a complex, accurate thought process. It’s not enough to memorize the functions of verbs or nouns if our kids can’t write a coherent sentence. Why don’t more people get this? Thanks for pointing this out!

    • Glad to hear you agree, Anna! I don’t understand why so many people set up a dichotomy between knowing facts and deeper understanding, and then pick only one or the other. It’s pretty clear to me that both are crucial.

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