More Important to Teach Principles than Facts

This week I read The Leader in Me, Stephen Covey’s new book about teaching the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to elementary school students. Schools in North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Guatemala, Singapore, and elsewhere have successfully incorporated 7 Habits into their curriculum.

As an outsider to education, what most interested me were the chapter on teaching effectiveness principles in the home (chapter 10) and the following thoughts on curriculum.

Parents, teachers, and business leaders recognize that simple transmission of facts is no longer a sufficient education, as it may have been many years ago. This is what makes teaching effectiveness principles so attractive. Principles and habits transcend facts.

While factual information remains a key factor for survival in today’s world, it is no longer sufficient. With the massive spread of the internet and other digital resources, facts that at one time were closely guarded trade secrets and only available from the top universities can now be accessed in most every nook and cranny on the globe at the click of a mouse. As a result, many of the so-called elite professions that once required extensive schooling are today being passed on to computers or to people at far lower education levels and wages across the planet. Factual knowledge alone is thus no longer the great differentiator between those who succeed and those who do not. (Stephen R. Covey. The Leader in Me. p. 7)

What’s needed, in Mr. Covey’s opinion, is a greater emphasis on “meta” skills such as being proactive, setting goals, resolving conflicts, and listening well. (I previously wrote about “intellectual self-sufficiency”, which I believe is one of these meta skills that is larger than other academic skills.)

Perhaps we could teach better by teaching less:

“It is time to recognize that the major flaw in the de facto curriculum of American public schools is not that schools do not do enough, but that they attempt to do too much. Even though American students have fewer school days each year than their Asian and European counterparts, they are expected to learn far more curriculum content. Confronted with a curriculum that is ‘a mile long and one-half inch deep,’ teachers have become preoccupied with ‘coverage.’ They feel unable to teach for student mastery of knowledge and skills because of the race to cover content. One of the most meaningful steps a school can take to promote significant improvement is to develop a process for identifying significant curriculum content, eliminating non-essential material, and providing teachers with time to teach the significant curriculum.” (Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. Professional Learning Community. p. 165. Quoted in The Leader in Me. pp. 197-198.)

“U.S. mathematics textbooks address 175 percent as many topics as do German textbooks and 350 percent as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. The science textbooks used in the United States cover more than nine times as many topics as do German textbooks and more than four times as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. Yet German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in mathematics and science.” (Robert J. Marzano. What Works in Schools. pp. 26-28. Quoted in The Leader in Me. p. 198.)

I’m not saying these are magic answers for education, or even that they’re new, but I thought they were interesting. As the internet makes it easier to connect with people and access any information, I see wisdom in learning and teaching better personal effectiveness skills.

Eric Hoffer said, “It is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

9 thoughts on “More Important to Teach Principles than Facts”

  1. @Miklas: You may be right about the textbooks, but I am yet to take a class where the teacher taught everything in the book.
  2. Also. Try looking at the thickness of textbooks from different countries. In most countries authors are paid according to amount of pages and text length, so the books become bloated with information that might not be useful and a waste of time to learn, but the authors have to write it in order to get paid (and be able to afford sending their kids to college 🙂 )
  3. @Justin Carmony: Good point about interviewing. Joel Spolsky says the same thing — hire a developer who is “smart” and “gets things done”. The tools or languages the developer happens to know at the moment aren’t as important.

    @Tyler: I wonder if the inventions produced here are more a product of the entrepreneurial and risk-tolerant culture, as well as infrastructure differences like lower taxes, less red tape for starting a company, etc. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem that it’s our schools that are explicitly encouraging entrepreneurship or inventing. Or maybe the heavy load causes the “free spirits” to drop out of school and start their own companies?

    @Katie: Hey, thanks for that link.

  4. Excellent post and powerful points. I do agree that we try to stuff ourselves full. It’s like a knowledge binge. Rather than gorge ourselves, it is important to learn the skills that will help us work faster and more efficiently; meanwhile utilizing the tools of modern day.

    One mystery puzzle that I can’t seem to put into place… If we are cramming in too much into our schooling system, we are still doing something right. Afterall America has invented the radio, television, automobile, internet, atomic bomb, computer, first to land on the moon and many other modern day conveniences.

    I agree our schooling system can be improved, but at the same time our system has fostered tremendous success. It apparently isn’t broken. Can you help connect the two?

  5. I can’t agree with you more. I’ve been having the same feeling about education lately, and this is a great explanation of it. Schools, teachers, and students focus on learning pieces of information and spitting it back out. However, today self-education is a skill you’ll need for the rest of the education. Learning “principles” that transcend facts and apply to any career are crucial to separate a person from the rest.

    I’ve interviewed several people for Software Development or Web Design that could tell all sorts of facts about how to do things. However, learning new skills, being a productive employee, setting and meeting goals are completely foreign to them.

  6. Thank you for this post. I found it extremely interesting and plan to pick up my own copy. I too have always felt it was more important to have the skills and ability to learn vs straight facts and knowledge.

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