F is for Facts

19 02 2012

With all the hoo-ha surrounding the bicentenary of his birth, it’s worth recalling how comically, but also how ferociously, Charles Dickens ridiculed Victorian educational practices. Think of the irascible Wackford Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and his penchant for inflicting corporal punishment. And Mrs Pipchin, in Dombey and Son, whose approach to education was “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.”

More extreme still is the unspeakable Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Hard Times:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s obsession with facts and rationality is what might nowadays be called the culture of positivism.

Gradgrind "murdering the innocents"

Positivism (also known as logical positivism) is the philosophical viewpoint  by which “knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology, and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (Giroux 1997 p. 11). According to the positivist view  “knowledge … becomes not only countable and measurable, it also becomes impersonal. Teaching in this pedagogical paradigm is usually discipline based and treats subject matter in a compartmentalized and atomized fashion.” (p. 21).

According to its critics, an educational system based on positivist principles, such as the “new conservatism” presently operating on both sides of the Atlantic, works to “promote passivity and rule following rather than critical engagement on the part of teachers and students” (p. 89).

New conservatives have seized the initiative and argued that the current crisis in public education is due to loss of authority… For the new conservatives, learning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authority and a student willingness to learn the basics… (p. 95)

Not only to learn the basics, but to be regularly tested on them.

But what, you may be asking, has this got to do with ELT?

Coincidentally, this week I took delivery of the latest catalogue of a major ELT publisher. I couldn’t help noticing the number of books listed in the catalogue whose blurbs suggest an allegiance to a view of language as “self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (to use Giroux’s wording). For example:

  •  “It uses a step-by-step approach to help students build a clear knowledge of grammar and a solid vocabulary base”
  • “…a step-by-step approach with concise explanations and plenty of  practice of each grammar point”
  • “…step-by-step grammar presentations and carefully graded practice ensure steady progress”

Wackford Squeers

Contrast this view of language learning with a statement made by two researchers:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.” (Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, p. 16)

If this is the case, then a positivist approach to language teaching rests on somewhat shaky foundations. While such an approach may be appropriate to the teaching of maths, say, it does not seem to fit comfortably with language.  Atomistic rules may be enlisted to (partially) describe language, but they cannot, it seems, cause its acquisition.

So why has such a view persisted for so long?  Possibly because it lends itself to the ideological formation that embraces standards, order, control and the maintenance of the status quo – a viewpoint that asserts the authority of the teacher, and, by means of constant testing, maintains the learner in a subservient, even colonised, position.  According to Giroux (op cit):

There is little in the positivist pedagogical model that encourages students to generate their own meanings, to capitalize on their own cultural capital, or to participate in evaluating their own classroom experiences. The principles of order, control, and certainty in positivist pedagogy appear inherently opposed to such an approach  (p. 25).

Mrs Pipchin

Back to Dickens: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.

And if there’s one thing that language ain’t, it’s arithmetic.


Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research and practice. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

(Parts of this article first appeared as ‘Reading, Writing as Arithmetic’ in Modern English Teacher 9/4, October 2000).