By Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, is the author of numerous articles and three books on schools that are succeeding with significant populations of children of color and children living in poverty. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, to which she is a regular contributor.

A commonplace idea floating around schools is that learning facts is the wave of the past.

The basic argument goes like this: Now that we can Google any facts we want, why would anyone need to learn them? They’re so boring! Instead, kids need to learn the skills of “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”

Or, as my kids’ elementary school principal used to say, it doesn’t matter if kids know where Nebraska is as long as they can find out where it is.

A lot of cognitive science argues against this point of view, and some of it can be found here.

But the point I want to make today is that kids love knowing facts. You can almost see them puff up with pride when they can tell a fact to a grownup who doesn’t know it. It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know—like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock, or that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is pi and its decimal representation is infinite—that means it goes on forever!

Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.

I was reminded of the thrill kids have in learning facts a while back when I visited Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Brooke’s students are mostly African American (73 percent) and Latino (25 percent), with 82 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Students at Brooke Charter outperform students in the state by a lotfor example, 91 percent of third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards—compared with 57 and 68, respectively, in the state.

I had asked to speak to students in different grades. The principal set up a little focus group with two third-graders, two fourth-graders, and two fifth-graders and then left us alone.

A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.

shutterstock photo
Happy, knowledgeable child courtesy of Shutterstock.

I’m sure she was exaggerating somewhat, but another third-grader with a similar experience chimed in to say that he, too, had played most of the time in a previous school. That’s when one of the wise sages in the fifth grade explained that “here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge.”

Her fifth-grade colleague added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework.

Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff—stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.

I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers—not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.



15 comments on “Kids Love Knowing Stuff”

  1. 1
    Mary on September 16, 2015

    I completely agree that our students need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Too many children today expect an adult to come to the rescue and do not want to even try to figure things out on their own nor do they even know how to ask for help. They are too afraid of getting it wrong and failing or having to do the work all over again. I would always tell my Kindergarten students that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. No one knows everything. They know that I love to Google information if I don’t know enough about the topic and the observe how I get the help or information I need through technology, another coworker, or by some other means. I always find it interesting when children say they just “played”. While that may be the case in some classrooms, what Kindergarten children fail to realize is that they ARE learning through play. They are learning how to work in groups or in pairs with other people. They are learning social skills. They are learning to be independent. School does not have to be “boring”. It does not have to be led by the teacher at all times. Great learning takes place in a fun environment where children feel like they have a voice in the classroom. I feel that it is very important to have a comprehensive curriculum. It seems that there is too much focus on Math and Language Arts and that Science and Social Studies and the Arts are left behind. It is easy to incorporate three or more subject areas into a single lesson, to make it fun, and have the children learn so much while doing it.

  2. 2
    Ponderosa on September 16, 2015

    William Blake inveighed against abstractions, preferring “concrete particulars”. Many poets feel the same. As a teacher, I prefer teaching “concrete particulars” rather than nebulous skills, and my students seem to appreciate it –many kids tell me I was their favorite/best teacher. I’ve always felt oppressed by ELA standards that say “Students shall be able to analyze…” or “Students shall be able to evaluate…” because of the implication that teachers should be teaching analysis and evaluation, these airy skills, rather than anything in particular. I feel oppressed becauseI have no idea how to teach these things. I suspect no one else does either, despite their protestations to the contrary. Sure, I can ELICIT analysis, etc. but that’s not teaching it. I’ve never met a teacher who can explain to me exactly how one can teach analysis (or critical thinking or…). I don’t even know if kids need to be taught these things. Aren’t brains innately capable of analysis? One thing I DO know for certain is that kids’ brains do not come equipped with knowledge and that that can be taught. It’s career suicide to say you can’t teach critical thinking, etc.. They’re the only things with value in today’s (benighted?) education landscape. What I CAN do is not marketable: I CAN teach “concrete particulars” –at least the ones I understand myself –with a good deal of lucidity. To me this is the core of the teaching craft. To many of my colleagues, alas, this is a quaint and useless art.

  3. 3
    Brooke on September 19, 2015

    There is a lot of importance placed on critical thinking and problem solving skills in education these days, as well as a heavy reliance on technology and Google in society. I understand the principal’s point about Nebraska’s location because most 21st century learners are entrenched in educational technology to lead them to finding the information they seek. However, I think the younger grades greatly benefit from knowing “stuff”. I can remember learning about the parts of an ant and an egg when I was in kindergarten over 20 years ago and being so excited to run home and tell my sisters all about the fire ants that lived in little piles on our driveway in Texas. I think educators today are tasked with evoking curiosity and equipping students with the skills to find information while still teaching students about relationships between the sun and the moon, Minoans and Mycenaeans, and why it is important to put a punctuation mark at the end of each sentence. I see the relevance and importance of both knowing facts, teaching students how to find the information they seek, and teaching students how to think critically. I think educators are tasked with striking a fine balance between these things in order to educate the whole learner.

  4. 4
    Stephen Holley on September 19, 2015

    I think that is so important for our students to gain knowledge through facts. My students get so excited when they figure out the knowledge they need to be successful in my classroom. They seem to feed off of that knowledge that they have gained. It does seem to put pressure on me the teacher to give them more facts everyday. I have to be at my best daily and cannot let up. In my opinion they stay engaged when they are learning new facts about historical discoveries and important facts about the Indians that we are currently discussing! It excites me that students of this day and age still want to learn in your class especially when it is new and exciting to them.

  5. 5
    Miss Friday on September 19, 2015

    I would go one step further. Adults love knowing stuff too. In a comment to a post a couple weeks back I alluded to a British television show called QI. QI stands for “quite interesting” and the whole program is about facts. Interesting facts and talked about and explored by a panel of interesting people. QI has set viewing records in the UK, and the number of pirated episodes on YouTube is staggering.

    QI’s success demonstrates that genuine curiosity is not dead. And the universe is a vast, wondrous place full of the most amazing information. Schools need to be in the business of stoking these fires, not tamping them out with endless “authentic” exercises in “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”

    Now if I can type the HTML correctly, here’s a history clip that will forever color your thinking about the Acropolis where the Parthenon is.

  6. 6
    Stephen Holley on September 20, 2015

    Thanks for the information. I would totally agree with you that as adults we want to learn just as much as the students do. I feel that I am a life long learned and I enjoy learning something new everyday. I feel that it helps me become a better and more interesting teacher. I take what I learn and try in some form or fashion to give it back to my students. By the way the video was great. Very interesting.

  7. 7
    Fatima Djelidi Lakhdar on September 20, 2015

    As much as I agree that students need to know “stuff”, they still need to learn to become reflective learners and begin to analyze facts at an early stage. Thinking about how things function, operate and analyze and process the information collected will undoubtedly spur their interest and lead their imagination beyond set barriers.
    We need to set grounds for thinking and analysis as well as teaching students the basics.
    Moreover, I think the way a topic/subject is brought to learners makes all the difference: if students are intrigued and invited to explore, they will definitely tackle the challenges and explore further!

  8. 8
    Erin Turgeon on September 20, 2015

    I teach at the high school level and I think that students at any age still exhibit an excitement for knowing “stuff.” As a learner we should want to know as much as we can at each level of learning. The knowledge that students acquire on their educational journey builds upon itself and helps them improve in areas such as critical thinking and problem solving. It allows the student to make connections with new material that they otherwise would not be able to. While preparing my students for the next level, whether that is college or the workforce, I always stress that they leave an impression upon people when they are able to dialogue confidently about different subjects. I think that their ability to contribute to the conversation speaks volumes. It also gives them the upper hand with their reliance on the Internet. Having a broad knowledge base allows students to know where to begin their search and if the information is valid.

  9. 9
    Brooke on September 20, 2015

    Miss Friday,
    I would agree. I have a book on my desk in my classroom solely dedicated to “useless” facts. I love it and so do the students. I have to check out this whole QI phenomenon. Anyone know of anything like that here in the US? I know there are many interesting shows dedicated to facts and stories about specific things that have been wildly popular — Planet Earth, Antiques Roadshow, anything on the History Channel. I am hoping the youth are interested in these “educational” shows, too!

  10. 10
    Kids love knowing stuff — Joanne Jacobs on September 24, 2015

    […] Kids love knowing facts, writes Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. “It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know — like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock.” […]

  11. 11
    Beth on November 11, 2015

    Students should know some facts about some things, but I think the days of memorizing long lists and complicated material are over. I agree that students are excited when they can spout off facts about a topic or when they can intelligently contribute to a conversation. I see students get the most excited when they are pursuing their interests. It is easy for a students to learn facts about things they are interested in. Education can be boring and difficult when students are forced to memorize facts about something that they are not invested in.
    When I was in school, we had to memorize phonics facts and rules. There was a punishment if we could not spout out exactly what the rule said. This practice of drill and skill was not appropriate for reading, and it did not make me a better reader. Memorizing facts does have its place, but there are much better ways of learning. There needs to be a balance between memorizing facts and using critical thinking skills. Project based learning that involves content and application can showcase what a student knows about a topic and how they can apply that knowledge. The knowledge gained will last because the student is not just regurgitating facts.
    I agree that it is important for students to understand the relationships in facts, but they must also understand the application of facts. The knowledge will be long lasting when they investigate a topic and apply the gained knowledge.

  12. 12
    Kellie Vella on November 15, 2018

    It is a sad thing to think that this day and age, our students and children can Google any information they want and the answer just pops up. However, students should be able to take the information they have found and justify why it is true or false. A lot of the times they have not been taught how to sift through the Google answers to decide if the answers are, in fact, credible. They need to know what sites to use in order to retrieve the desired information. Technology has made knowing facts in isolation, outdated. Gone are the days when we needed to remember a phone number. However, many of my 5th-grade students love to rattle off facts about almost anything. It could be at the worst time, but they love to see their peers and teachers faces light up with the new knowledge. Even my own children, ages 8 and 6, always feel the need to stop me in my tracks. “Mom, did you know…” Often times I will reply with, “Oh that’s great, and where did you learn that?” Kids are naturally inquisitive and constantly wanting to know more. Author, Daniel T. Willingham, wrote the article How Knowledge Helps and states that “Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more–the rich get richer.” This implies that kids who ramble off or have a “pot of knowledge” about unrelated facts, could potentially become smarter in the long run.

  13. 13
    Sheema on November 16, 2018

    I so agree with the fact that ‘kids do love knowing stuff’. Thinking of this brings flashes of their startled facial expressions and their intrigued smiles when they are exposed to something new. I’m more associating this to the younger ones who are curious always to know more, explore more, and do more!
    As much as we, as teachers and facilitators, want them to learn through play, there are skills like critical thinking and problem solving that are not directly taught but have to be incorporated in our daily lessons through play that involves students to do so. I’m sure most of us talk to our students about these skills and how they use them in whatever they do. Of late, we have started to talk more about problem solving for small issues they have in the classroom with their friends. For example, over someone missing their turn or sharing a toy or book or not involving them in their play… Many times they come to me to resolve their issues, but this is the time when I have to remind them to talk about it and try and problem solve themselves. We have been doing this through the story, role modeling and now they kind of understand it and try to do it!
    What a bliss is to see them in doing so! Same is with the other skill of critical thinking of why something happened or what caused it and what can be its repercussions or results. It’s amazing to see how these little ones can relate things from what they already know to the new facts simply by hooking the knowledge, which happens by critically thinking and talking about it.

  14. 14
    Sydline Justilien on January 27, 2021

    When know and understand a topic or a piece of information, they would want to share it with everyone they meet. I meet a five-year-old who loves dinosaurs and wanted to explain to me what she knows. She was able to name different types of dinosaurs, the similarity, and differences of the dinosaurs. As she speaks, her tone of voice changed and I heard the excitement and how passionate she was.
    I’ve also experienced it in my classroom. When I’m teaching a new topic and a student knows and understands the topic that I am about to teach. Right after I am done explaining the objectives of the lesson they would raise their hands, when they are acknowledged they would talk about the topic from start to finish. When they are done, they would feel like the smartest student in the class.

  15. 15
    Olivia Bradley on January 29, 2021

    Critical thinking and problem-solving is such an important skill to learn. I do not feel that I was ever taught this and so I see the value in teaching this to my students. These skills enable students to be more aware of what they are learning and gives them accountability for their learning. It engages them as they feel they have some power over what they want to learn about. The students that I am now working with have no critical thinking or problem-solving abilities. They haven’t been taught that way. Their prior experiences of learning is all about the teacher feeding them information. Allowing them to have a chance to think critically and problem solve has opened up a whole new level of conversations that we have in class. They challenge each other and me in all our learning. By using these strategies, they are then able to learn facts, which they all love sharing. They have had to ask more questions about topics that they are interested in and that has led to more learning, and taking on more facts. I do not see them as being separate, but I think they should be intertwined in learning.

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