I was talking with some friends about the facts we were taught in school that have turned out to be false, mostly in the areas of history and science. I wouldn’t go so far as to say my teachers lied to me because almost without exception, they were all following the teacher’s guide that went with the textbook. None of us doubted that, as with newspapers, something printed as a fact had to be true.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what’s worth teaching, especially now that standardized testing determines the curriculum in most schools, and as we all know, a multiple choice test has to be vetted to include nothing but the facts. This led me to consider the lessons I presented that were not only well-received by my students, but were remembered years down the road. Few of them had to do with the facts. All had to do with ideas that can be argued from different perspectives; the facts were used to clear away the nonsense and grapple with the Big Questions. These never have simple answers, which is why humans have utilized every form of art, writing, science, and math in pursuit of the truth.

I used to prepare my students for standardized tests in the same way a coach would get a team pumped up for a game; it was one of the rare times I would encourage my students not to think or question–just bubble the answers that match the ones in the study guides. I would spend as little of our classroom time as possible with this kind of preparation, then we’d get back to the real work of searching for answers to questions like “Why were we put on this earth and what are we going to do about it?” To find an answer that satisfies, the students needed to use facts to test their theories. Now more than ever, students can access information in moments. My job as a teacher is to help them evaluate the information and use it to form opinions that will influence the decisions they will make throughout their lives.

I would estimate that 90% of our students’ time is spent on memorizing facts and 10% pondering the Big Questions. It should be just the opposite.