Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Facts versus skills

> How do you define facts versus skills?

Tracy, you get to the core of a deep issue very quickly. Let me try a brief response, with the admission that a longer response may be necessary.

My response is this: there isn't really a distinction between facts and skills; what we call 'facts' and what we call 'skills' are the very same thing.

However, what people mean when they say 'facts' is something very different, and it is this sense of 'facts' to which I am responding in this essay.

In this sense of 'facts', a fact is something that it is propositional, it is declarative knowledge, it is expressible as a sentence, it is stored atomically (as a 'sentence in the brain') in memory, it is privileged (that is, it is a proposition that is known to be 'true').

Now, we can cause people to remember these sorts of things, and to recite them back when needed, and storage of these sorts of things can be useful in some cases, because they can serve as a guide to action.

A good example of this is a pilot's pre-touchdown checklist. This is a set of statements which need basically to be recited and acted upon ("landing lights - check - flaps - check - throttle back - check - wheels down - check..."). Explicit declarative memory can serve as a guide to action, and is useful in high-risk situations (like landing an aircraft) where you can't make a mistake, or in novice situations (like installing a software application for the first time, or just beginning to use mathematics).

But this is the exception and not the rule. Acting as though all knowledge - or any significant proportion of it - resembles declarative knowledge is a fundamental misrepresentation. Treating learning as the storage and accumulation of facts is, in general, a mistake.

It's confusing, because the same bit of knowledge can be represented as both a skill and a fact. Take driving a car, and 'knowing which pedal is the accelerator'.

Pretty clearly, we can say "we need to know which pedal is the accelerator" in order to drive a car. But what does that mean?

If we represent it as a declarative memory, then the process of driving a car is described as "remembering which pedal is the accelerator, selecting it from the field of vision, remembering how to press on the accelerator,... etc." But if we represent it as a skill, then the process of driving the car is "accelerating..."

Now, in the latter case, we did not dispense with the "knowledge of which pedal is the accelerator" - but at the same time, we did not appeal to it explicitly, nor did we need to. The knowledge is implicit and contained within the much more complex (and non-declarative) skill of 'accelerating'.

Why is this distinction important? Well, when we are teaching, when we are learning, and when we are evaluating, we need to be clear about which form of knowledge we are working with: declarative memory, or skill. Because, if it's declarative memory, then nowing which pedal is the accelerator will not be sufficient for knowing how to accelerate - you need to know that you have to press it, how hard to press it, when to ease off, how to steer while you are doing it, not to run over the family dog, etc...

If we tried to represent 'accelerating' as declarative knowledge, we would have to specify each of these steps. This would work only in the most basic instances of accelerating. Such a description might be useful to get the skill of 'accelerating' off the ground. But, note:

- the declarative does not actually constitute learning how to accelerate - knowing the sentence isn't the same as knowing how to accelerate, and the learning of 'how to accelerate' does not consist of learning the sentence at all, but rather, of the learning, through practice, the actual skill and habit of how to accelerate

- an evaluation of whether a person knows how to accelerate is in no way supported through the succesful answering (or non-answering) of questions related to the declarative knowledge

- teaching that is focused on the recollection of 'facts' (as declarative statements) may improve a person's ability to respond to questions about those statements, but does not in any significant way support learning that fact (as a constituent of the larger and more complex skill)

This is pretty easy to demonstrate with the example of driving, or landing an airplane, because these are obviously skills, and cannot be reduced to declarative knowledge.

But what I am saying is that knowing is a skill, just like driving, and that there are constituent skills to knowing - skills like literacy, learning, prioitizing, evaluation, planning and acting.

The learning of these skills - and the application of these skills - does not involve the learning or use of declarative memory. When (for example) reading, you do not go through some step-by-step process of decoding, you navigate the text in the same sort of way you navigate a road when you drive. When you evaluate a piece of writing for fallacies, you do not run through a list of fallacies in your mind, you recognize a fallacy through he same ineffable process that you would use to recognize a dog running across the road.

Declarative knowledge - the list of how to spell words, the addition and multiplication table, the rules of grammar, the list of fallacies - might help you get started, but they're just that: a starting point. Not the best, or only, or uniquely meaningful starting point. Just a leg-up into the more complex process. A teacher's aid. Scaffolding.

Hope that helps.