Thinking without knowing

Teaching thinking skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a  waste of time, writes Tom Bennett on The Behavior Guru. He includes some wonderful art.

Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.

“Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.”

Students need “facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious,” Bennett argues. “Knowledge is best learned in context.”

Via Stuart Buck.

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  1. The problem is, because of today’s toxic politics, we can’t even agree on the facts as a society, much less the context.

  2. Allan in Portland says:

    Heh, heh. I get it. This is your response to the poem suspension, the bomb components arrest, the rumor monger arrest, and the self-serving lament that adults are skipping community college to get a real job. :-)

    Though I might have to quibble with the good Mr. Bennett. Teaching “thinking skills” without factual content is propaganda at best and indoctrination at worst.

  3. Foobarista says:

    The problem with thinking is it requires judgement, and that would be “judgmental”. Saying that X is better than Y would offend the Y people, and that’s unfair. After all, the zeroth commandment is thou shall not offend, unless the people happen to be in the wrong social cohort.

    Better to not think at all…

    PS: note for the sarcasm impaired.

  4. The problem is that postmodernism (which all but owns the academy, these days) explicitly rejects the entire concept of objective reality, and thus “facts” in general. In case some find this a bit over the top, see this page:

    “The belief in an objective reality is rejected by Postmodernists.”

    It’s not hard to see where the idea of “thinking skills” independent of “facts” comes from. Postmodernism, in its roots, argues that, since our senses are our only connection to the “real world”; and our senses cannot be trusted to tell us the objective truth; then the “real world” is unknowable.

    Conveniently, this opens the floodgates for all sorts of academic foolishness, where “texts” can be “deconstructed” to have any meaning someone wants to argue for and fact-based disciplines like history can be rebranded as any-interpretation-you-want disciplines that provide endless fodder for sillier and sillier “dissertations” that require no mastery of subject, but only mastery of invention.

    I always wonder: if you are an academic who truly believes in this trash, what keeps you from stepping out in front of a bus? After all, it easily could be a lie told to you by your senses, right? If “gravity” is merely a petty bourgeois convention, why should you fear it?

  5. What’s next, “Teaching math skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a waste of time?” Or “Teaching language skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a waste of time?”

    Neither of these would be acceptable, and neither should this argument. Learning consists of much more than mere accumulation of facts, and facts are without value if acquired without language, mathematics and reasoning skills.

    • Learning consists of much more than mere accumulation of facts, and facts are without value if acquired without language, mathematics and reasoning skills.

      Many reasoning skills *are* useless, even counterproductive, without facts. Can one use logic to produce true conclusions if he cannot verify the truth of the premises? Can one think critically about a subject when all she knows about the subject is what’s in the source in front of her?

      Take, for example, Howard Zinn’s complete omission of the invasion of Poland from A People’s History of the United States. Summarizing from an article by Sam Weinburg (, Zinn tries to make the point that the US and England escalated attacks on civilians by painting their bombings of German cities as out of proportion with similar Nazi attacks on England. The attacks he cites are all after 1940. The invasion of Poland in 1939 and its ravages against civilians are completely ignored by Zinn. They would undermine his point. A student who was learning history from the Zinn book would be unable to think critically about the argument unless she knew about the invasion of Poland.

      As an aside, I also get annoyed when people think teaching creativity is sufficient to allow people to be creative. Creativity is fueled by brains full of facts and other people’s ideas. They become the playthings of the creative mind, mixed and matched and turned inside out until a new idea emerges. Beethoven changed the way music was written forever because he was deeply versed in the accepted way to write music, not because he was ignorant of it.

      Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major opens with a chord progression that repeated points away from the key of C: first to F, then a hint at A minor, then to G before finally finding its way to C. It’s a brilliant opening that builds suspense by defying the expectations of the listener. He couldn’t have done it through creative thinking alone; he had to know the rules of music theory in order to bend them creatively and excite the listener.

      The devaluation of facts by educators is one of the great tragedies of the second half of the twentieth century. It’s produced wide swathes of intellectual cripples unaware of their own inability to think effectively about history, science, the arts, even the human condition. These people literally don’t know what they don’t know, yet they think they can look it up later.

      Facts matter, period.

      • Allan in Portland says:

        Since the comments don’t have a thumbs-up button, I have to say it: great comment Quincy.

        This thread reminds me of something my old climbing buddy was wont to say, “opinions are like @rseholes, everybody’s got one.” Thinking without facts is opinion.