Do you know that school starts next week on August 24th? Do you also happen to know that 1,996 years ago on August 24th Mt. Vesuvius erupted providing a spectacular pyrotechnic display for the City of Pompeii and Herculean? A devastating volcanic eruption may not be the most joyful thing to remember on the first day of school, but other than the British burning down the White House in 1814 and Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, I didn’t have a lot from history to pick from. Yes-yes, I know, thousands were buried under ash and suffocated from a blast of toxic gas, but some of that happened on the 25th. For now, let’s just focus on the historical and scientific fact that Vesuvius erupted.
Now, let me begin by saying what I’m not saying. I’m not saying this will be a proverbially explosive school year (been there, done that). I’m not predicting that we’ll be buried by the burning irritation of bureaucracy and mandated reporting (though this is very likely). My intent isn’t to compare the events of A.D. 79 with the 2015-2016 school year. Rather, it is to point out something much more important and lasting. Remembering the August 24th eruption of Pompeii in A.D. 79 is a good reminder that learning facts is the foundation upon which a school year should be constructed, particularly in elementary school.
Facts are interesting and fascinating. Even the most artistic movie producer would have a hard time topping the events of August 24th in Pompeii. An upscale town, lots happening in the social scene, and then just a short distance up north in the sky, a spectacular explosion. Some panicked and fled the city right away, others were intrigued and stayed to observe. Even some ships out at sea decided to anchor in port to get a closer look. Pliny the Younger fled and lived to write down an account of the terrible day. Pliny the Elder was out at sea and decided to come in and try to help. He ended up dead. (Which naturally makes me wonder if Pliny the Younger changed his name to Pliny the Only?) Information about the real world provides the food for thought-ing or “thinking” to be grammatically correct. Without facts, you can’t teach students to think. Facts help us to ask good questions about what we don’t know…like: Why do volcanoes erupt? Can we predict eruptions? What was life like in Pompeii before the eruption? And, of course, why didn’t Pliny the Younger change his name to Pliny the Only after the Elder passed away?
Students also need to learn facts about the world in order to learn how to read well. This year, hopefully, some of our students will learn about Pompeii. In learning about one event in history, they’ll gain all sorts of background knowledge for when they learn about other things. They’ll learn something about science as they study volcanoes and Roman history. They’ll learn about geography by finding Pompeii in the Mediterranean region. They’ll learn some anthropology and culture as they come to know some of those who lived through Vesuvius’ eruption. All of these facts will help them as they learn to read by increasing their vocabulary. Background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. Students who learn about Pompeii will have an easier time learning and comprehending other text about volcanoes. And, if they ever bump into someone named Pliny, they’ll be able to say they’ve heard that name before.
Most importantly, by learning facts, students will have the raw materials necessary for learning to think. Knowledge is more than facts, it is processing. Students must learn to think critically and analytically (especially in today’s internet crazed world of rumor and open-source-expertise). We often hear a lot about the importance of teaching “critical thinking.” I’m often amazed, however, that this is presented as something that happens apart from facts. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Memorization is the hand-maid of learning.” Learning facts, and yes, even memorizing them is important. Without facts, what do we expect our students to think critically about?
I’m an unashamed fact fan. I like good old fashion facts because I like to see students think. Let’s encourage students to learn facts and explore the world so they can ponder their own ideas and solutions to the mysteries and wonders of it all.
What facts will your student learn about the world this year? Now is a great time to contact your child’s teacher and ask about the curriculum. Ask your child regularly what they learned in history and science. Ask students their opinions about what they’ve learned. I’m confident, you’ll enjoy listening to kids think…they can be uniquely insightful.
I wish you and your students a school year filled with facts useful for thinking.