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Everyone knows that what we learn when we’re young is likely to stay with us for much longer than what we learn in later life. Most children have very retentive memories and even if they’re initially unwilling to learn something – multiplication tables, the names of flowers or countries – they have a real sense of achievement once they’ve succeeded.

It is a crying shame then that for the past few decades this priceless asset has been squandered and even denigrated by our educational establishment. Mastering facts, memorising rules, learning poems by heart have come to be regarded, not as enlarging a child’s world but as positively crushing his or her spirit. Children, so the theory goes, should be creative and spontaneous – they should discover the world through play. The assumption is that creativity and acquiring facts are somehow mutually exclusive.

One of the results of these idiotic notions, is that thousands of children have left our schools virtually illiterate. That the playful attitude to reading simply doesn’t work has finally been acknowledged and teachers have been told to go back to the “phonics” method. But what does not seem to have been realised is that phonics are to reading what facts are to most other subjects. I know teenagers, for instance, who have been exhaustively instructed about global warming in their geography lessons but who know very little about the globe itself – its physical features, the countries which make it up.

It is largely because most state schools are so averse to teaching facts that parents are desperate to get their children into fee-paying schools – or better still of course, into the few state schools which have not bought into the facts-are-oppressive orthodoxy. Parents, by and large, don’t want their children to have lessons in “learning how to learn” (one of the Government’s recent initiatives) – they want their children actually to learn. In any event, the best way to learn how to learn is to learn.

Indeed it seems to me that one of the main causes of the polarisation in our school system has to do with the approach to facts. Parents would rather their children learn and remember, for example, what Cromwell was about, than have lessons in “emotional well-being” (which are to be introduced into the syllabus). The former they are unlikely ever to catch up with after they leave school, while there’s a good chance that their emotional well-being will be helped by a solid grounding in fact-based education.

Charles Van Wert
August 11th, 2008
9:08 PM
I'm not a big commentor and Ms. Gross is not saying anything new, but I thought I'd chime in to establish that: 1) somebody is reading you guys 'across the pond' and 2) the described idiocy obtains over here in equal proportion. Speaking as a teacher in the public schools for 20 years, I think the phrase "the best way to learn how to learn is to learn" is something every student, teacher, and administrator should be required to --dare I suggest it?-- memorize.

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