The fallacy of facts

September 3, 1999

It is all very well cramming students' heads full of facts but, argues Alison Utley, society and the world of work would be better served by teaching them how to think critically.

As fields of knowledge continue to expand, many lecturers despair of ever being able to fit their disciplines into three-year degree programmes. But rather than stuffing the heads of new undergraduates full of facts, wouldn't their time at university be better spent learning how to become critical thinkers? Most employers would probably think so. For on the whole universities are very good at teaching students about chemistry, medicine, history or whatever, but it is doubtful that even at the end of their studies they know much about being a chemist, a doctor or a historian, according to John Garratt of York University.

Dr Garratt is concerned that academic subjects are too readily reduced to vast sets of facts with loosely associated problem-solving skills, particularly in the sciences: "Of course there are many facts which students need to learn and undergraduates are very well trained to memorise factual information and reproduce it in exams," he says. "The acquisition of this skill is one of the main ways of achieving academic success." Sadly, he believes, there is little or no chance for students to discuss the nature of scientific investigation and reasoning, since the problem-solving skills are often restricted to routines or algorithms on which students can be drilled.

With colleagues from York's department of chemistry, Dr Garratt is developing an approach that allows students to experience new ways of thinking and thereby develop their own critical powers. Without these, Dr Garratt fears students will never shake off the commonly held assumption that science consists of a body of known facts to which they can make no contribution. This attitude encourages a passive rote-learning approach which is not only boring but shallow.

"Using specially designed exercises in critical thinking, our objective has been to provide students with the opportunity to discuss chemistry, to develop valid opinions which may differ from those of the tutor, to evaluate and criticise ideas and to tackle new types of problems," he explains. The approach has a wide application across all the disciplines, he says, since the principles are universal. Subject-related examples, however, probably work best: "We wanted students to use their chemistry to learn to think," he add. "This approach is the best way of learning to think like a professional chemist. It reinforces and puts into perspective their chemical knowledge, and motivates students to enjoy their chemistry."

The exercises are designed to help students construct and understand an argument, read critically and make judgements. They stress the importance of reviewing and adjusting models, and reinforce the old maxim: "Half of what you have been taught is wrong, and furthermore we do not know which half."

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