George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Getting Students to Define a ‘Fact’

August 21, 2015 Updated August 20, 2015

Over the years, I've found this idea to be much more slippery than I would have ever expected prior to teaching. As a biology teacher, these distinctions are incredibly important - along with the constant reminder that even 'facts' are slippery, changing things.

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA offers ways to establish rules for discussion in her recent Edutopia article. Her article approaches this problem broadly by establishing a number of steps. Here, I focus on just two:

Require Evidence

"Even when you are discussing hot topic issues, make sure that evidence is required. This is a classroom, not a session of psychotherapy (although it can sometimes feel like that). When discussing particularly dicey issues, remember the importance of citing evidence for every declarative statement."

Explore the Difference Between Fact, Feeling, and Argument

"Each about these three concepts and instill argument skills in your students to equip them with the abilitiy to “defend” each.

For example, ask questions to clarify if the student is asserting a fact, a feeling or an argument. How do we know it is a fact? A fact is a specific detail based on an objective truth. A feeling or an opinion is a value judgement that can neither be proven nor disproven. An argument is a way to utilize facts to validate your opinions, it can be considered a fact-filled opinion."

One major difference I see between our views is the 'provability' and implied 'immutability' of facts. As I said above, I see 'facts' as conclusion about evidence as we see it today. I think she has a more absolute view of facts than this.

What I Mean by This:

Prior to Edwin Hubble's examination of the Andromeda Nebula, no galaxies outside of the Milky Way were known. So, in the early 20th century, one could state as a fact that the Milky Way was the extent of the (at least matter-filled) universe. Today, we see this 'fact' as dated and supplanted by more recent evidence.

However, Our Solution is the Same: Require Evidence

I'm thinking specifically about discussions that emanated either from our reading of Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" or just the way that I commonly discuss molecular biology, which adheres pretty closely to Theodosius Dobzhansky's central thesis from, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The American Biology Teacher, March 1973:

Are theological principles facts? What about when they are brought up in the classroom as alternative "theories" of life? Interestingly, when I've asked for support for these ideas, I've been presented with Ken Ham's extensive publications for 'Answers in Genesis.'

Honestly, I could have gone on all semester with this discussion if I had the time for it. This student introduced such a cornucopia of ideas to run with:

  • What is a reliable source?
  • What is good science?
  • What is evidence?
  • How do we interpret evidence?
  • How do we compare or decide between competing interpretations of the same data?

My head almost exploded in excitement about getting down to brass tacks. Fortunately or unfortunately, these ideas have been discussed ad nauseam over the years. On the one hand, a wealth of data was easily found to support or refute any number of claims, on the other, it was impossible for this discussion to ever find new ground.

In the end, we discussed evolution and creation for longer than I think is strictly appropriate in a science classroom, but I felt the conversation was justified in the sense that my students could benefit more from learning about how science is done than they could from knowing details of Kreb's Cycle (but don't worry, I taught that too).

To all the teachers out there: have you had these conversations before (not necessarily about evolution, but just about separating opinions from theories, and how to form valid and true arguments, etc.)? If so, please let me know in the comments section what you discussed and how it went. I'd love to hear others' experiences.

The post can also be seen on my blog: downhousesoftware.wordpress.com.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • pinterest icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia® and Lucas Education Research™ are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.