I believe that there is some value in memorizing facts but it is limited. There is an excellent article written by Marian Small (a K-12 mathematics professor and author) that focuses on this exact issue. Her opinion, and I would agree, is that teaching students facts allows them to be more efficient when solving rich mathematical questions. However, teaching just facts without teaching through the mathematical processes (i.e., problem solving, communication, reasoning and proving, connecting, representing, and selecting tools and computational strategies) does not allow students the opportunity to develop deep mathematical concepts. If a student can successfully multiply 9×9, this is math; if the student can explain their thinking or the strategy they used, then this is numeracy. We need to make our students numerate, just as we need to make our students literate. In literacy, we can teach decoding but, without comprehension, there is no understanding. In history, students can memorize facts, the dates of important battles, etcetera, but will not be able to think critically and articulate the historical significance, historical perspective, and the cause and consequences of these events. We need to be focusing on the Big Ideas so that students can begin to make connections between what they are learning and previous knowledge.
So, when do students learn these facts? Maybe at school, maybe at home, or maybe it can be just on their “cheat sheets” or in their notebooks. Cheat sheets need to be renamed! We are not teaching and assessing memorizing; we are teaching and assessing deep and applied comprehension in all subject areas. A basic fact can be asked as a “level one” question. This is a question that can be answered by Googling it. We want our students to be able to answer much more complex questions. Questions that allow them to analyze, synthesize and evaluate; creating new ideas, imagining and forming opinions; you cannot Google an answer to that!
I believe that the best way students learn is through comprehensive balanced programs, where Assessment for Learning is at the forefront. Teachers need to find a balance between direct instruction and inquiry-based learning. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model is true differentiation. Teachers need to be a facilitator and a coach. We need to plan lessons that are appropriate for modelled whole group instruction, small group (shared and guided), and individual (independent) instruction. As teachers we need to plan supports that are good for some, like the use of “cheat sheets”, and the supports that are good for a few when we look at our students with special education needs. We need to created frequent flexible groupings based on readiness, interests, and/or learning styles. This will ensure that we are engaging our 21ST century learners. There is no doubt that inquiry-based learning or project-based learning is engaging for students. However, in order for students to be successfully creating new knowledge, that is rooted in our curriculum, then teachers need to know when to step in and directly teach a necessary concept and when to let the students struggle and persevere. Students are engaged when they are working in groups, solving real relevant problems, thinking critically, and having voice and choice. However, it’s the balance that’s key and they need our guidance. As they are working in these inquiry-based groups, the teacher’s role is very clear. We are gathering evidence of learning and asking intentional probing questions, to name a few of our roles. It’s this hands-on tangible inquiry-based learning married to direct instruction that allows students to learn best…in my opinion 🙂