Remarks to the student body this morning.

I used to work with a teacher, a history teacher, who was a great teacher, popular, smart, funny.  But one thing always bothered me: it seemed that any time I walked past his classroom’s open door, I would hear him answering a question with the words, “well, actually.”   Actually, he would say, what students had read in a textbook was wrong; actually that historian we were studying was mistaken; actually what happened in this historical event was actually different from what is commonly believed.

I have to tell you, this bothered me.   I don’t think the word “actually” has an appropriate place in the language of teaching and learning.

Our world isn’t composed of truths and falsehoods, or certainties that can be claimed by the use of the word actually.   I realize that I am speaking more about Social Studies, History, and English than I am about Math and Sciences—and there are things that we can be certain about, I know—but I think that in every area.  there are many things about which we can never use the word “actually.”

One of my all time favorite Supreme Court Justices (you do all have your own list of favorite Supreme Court Justices, right?)  is Justice David Souter, who retired in 2009.   In June he gave a speech at Harvard in which he argued against the use or concept of “actually” in judicial interpretation.  Some think that the Supreme Court’s job is to decide what the Constitution “actually” says, or “actually” mean.  But Justice Souter explains:

The Constitution is not a set of aphorisms for the country to live by but a “pantheon of values” inevitably in tension with one another. The Supreme Court may serve no higher function than to help society resolve the “conflict between the good and the good.  A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague, but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice.

Now you can see, can’t you, why he is among my favorite Justices!

This is important too, not just as a matter of politics, law, or philosophy, but also for your learning.   I read a book this summer called the Power of Mindful Learning, by Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

In the book, she explains that it can be problematic when you try to learn something if you just try to memorize it, as if it were just a set of certain, actual facts.  When you see your learning this way, she says, you treat

facts as absolute truths to be learned as is, to be memorized, leaving little reason to think about them.  Then, there is little chance that the information will lead to any conceptual insights or even be rethought in a new context.

By memorizing what you learn as simple facts, as “actual facts,” you will likely have a harder time remembering what you learned,  Langer’s research shows, and you will very likely have a harder time applying what you have learned in new circumstances..

What Dr. Langer recommends instead is to look at what you are learning by

drawing distinctions: Distinctions reveal that the material is situated in a context and imply that other contexts may be considered.”  Drawing distinctions allows you to see more sides of an issue or subject, which sets the stage for mindful learning: for creating new categories, for being open to new information, and being aware of different perspectives.

She tells of many studies in which one group of students was asked to study, learn, or memorize a subject or chapter; the other group was asked to draw distinctions about and to think about it from multiple perspectives.   In other words, she told them to resist thinking what was “actually” true or correct about it, but quite the opposite—to think about it as though there are no actual facts about it. Often they were asked to think about it from multiple perspectives: form those of other characters, or those impacted by the events.      In every study, the students who drew distinctions tested better: they recalled more information and the essays they wrote were judged to be more creative and intelligent.

Sometimes this idea of “drawing distinctions” can also be understood by the funny word “problematize.”   Problematize means to make the simple more complicated; to look at what you are learning and force yourself to think about it in different ways; to try to imagine how other people might look at it; to question it; to try,  even if you understand it easily, to try to understand why others might find it hard—where are they getting confused, or how are they seeing it differently.

So for your own learning, to better remember what you are learning, and, more importantly, to better understand and apply what you are learning, draw distinctions, look at it from multiple perspectives, problematize it, and Don’t say “Actually.”