When We Use the Word FACT(S)

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If you were to ask any of my former students at the University of Connecticut for something they remember me saying, I believe one that would be offered frequently is this one: “The only thing that’s certain is the existence of uncertainty.” Yes, I know the same is true of death and either taxes or jail. But I’d suggest that the most understood / acknowledged certainty is indeed uncertainty.

Which brings me to my response on Facebook to the “Agreed?” question that accompanied the posting of the photo shown above on Facebook. Here is my response, copied directly from Facebook:

Yes, know the differences between ‘FACTS’ and FEELINGS … BUT also know that most ‘FACTS’ are not facts (hence the single quotes on FACTS) … Using the word, facts, means there is certainty in the statement. There are only TWO ways to have certainty: (1) Defining it to be so (e.g., “My name is John because my parents named (defined) me that” or “2+2=4 because of the definitions of 2, +, =, and 4”); and (2) something has been measured often enough that the uncertainty is zero —> there is certainty (e.g., the acceleration due to gravity at a particular point on the earth’s surface). OTHERWISE, everything has uncertainty and thus is NOT CERTAIN!!!

Wasn’t initially thinking about this … But I would suggest that there CAN BE (maybe, honestly, there ALWAYS IS) uncertainty in our FEELINGS as well. What’s your thinking on this suggestion from me?

Bottom line: There is NO ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT about FACTS. Understood???

We educators must work with our students to understand that most ‘facts’ are indeed not facts. When they they overlook the reality that uncertainty is rarely negligible, they make their significant efforts to reach outcomes possibly worthless. They must understand that changes in procedures used / materials used / outcomes deemed acceptable quite frequently must be Considered. 

I can ‘hear’ some of you reading this now: “He’s an engineer and thus his students were studying engineering … That’s where uncertainty is important.” Balderdash!!! One reality I would hope everyone reading this post would accept is this: Uncertainty is a reality for everyone and everything!

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Ah, Yes – Less Is More – Always

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The featured picture is yet another gem from George Couros through his phenomenal Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC). Five great suggestions for sure; I’ll be discussing my favorite: “3. Less is more.”

In my 29+ years as engineering faculty, I always included group / team projects that were student-centered and student-identified – addressing a driving question from me. Leading up to the introduction of the project, the students and I would Consider working in groups via development of a group contract. We also reviewed the using problem solving effectively to address the project – with emphasis on ‘effectively.’

It never ceased to amaze me as I followed the various groups’ efforts that there were always two typical approaches to their efforts (in spite of my not-so-subtle suggestions to some that they change): (a) the groups whose key focus was developing a great starting direction for their efforts; and (b) the groups whose key focus was developing a great complete design for their project.

The results or outcomes were nearly always the same: The groups looking for the direction began their development efforts quicker, thereby encountering critical requirements faster, addressing them sooner, and arriving at a useful and timely outcome. On presentation day, they had much to say – what the critical items were, how their outcome addressed the driving question, and what could be done to probably make the outcome even better. If there was a prototype to be demonstrated, it worked!!!

The groups working on a complete design were brought to essentially a crawling pace because someone in the group (often correctly by the way) identified an issue that prevented a great design. Occasionally, they identified their flawed approach in time to yield at least a somewhat useful outcome; once in a while, they actually had a design that enabled them to develop a useful and timely outcome. But most groups ended up ‘throwing something together’ at the last possible minute, sadly at times not even on the path to a useful outcome. Their presentation was not well organized, questions posed to them were unanswerable, and any prototype, if expected, was unworkable.

I’m sure you’ve identified the connection to the blog post title by now. Doing less planning and upfront organizing, getting started as quickly as the direction / first steps is identified is better – more!!! This is an important part of problem solving that we educators must facilitate in term of habit development for our students (and ourselves by the way if not habitual already). My thesis: Addressing every situation faced – including learning – as a problem to be solved yields a better outcome quickly. With more effective efforts, there are more opportunities for innovation!!!

LEARNING -RANDOM / NON-LINEAR

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My belief: Learning (and any situation faced) will yield a better result more quickly IF approached as a ‘problem to be solved.’ That procedure used will be random and non-linear to achieve the optimum learning.

My personal problem solving procedure has the acronym, OSCAR. THE ‘S’ is for Speed Bumps, the random brainstorming of topics that might have importance to the situation at hand. The point is to not miss topics, should this step not be taken. Imagine looking to learn deeply about any topic, leaving out input because of the rush to learn.

The bigger problem results from the list of steps typical for the procedure. Suppose our ‘problem to be solved’ is learning how to write a blog post. The procedure might be something like: choose a subject, develop a title, write an introduction, discuss major points, and finish with an important takeaway – a list. Do you think anyone could draft a valuable post ‘addressing step one, addressing step two, … ???’ Of course not; as you periodically self-assess efforts, new ideas will arise, parts will be thought out of order if not inappropriate – you will ‘loop’ back to previous steps (NON-LINEARLY). That’s why we call them ‘drafts’ / why we edit our efforts!

We must help our students learn that this is routine in learning. I would add that it’s important to honestly accept that it is a problem to be solved, invoking a sometimes random, always non-linear procedure.