Against Actually

Remarks to the Student Body.

I used to work with a teacher, a history teacher, who was a great teacher, popular, intellectual, passionate, dedicated, 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 word “actually.”   Actually, he would say, what students had read in a textbook was wrong; actually that historian was mistaken; actually what happened in this historical event was actually different from what is commonly believed.

This bothered me to no end.  I want to stake a position here:  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 effectively 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, please,  don’t say “Actually.”

[cross posted on]


  1. jane witmer said:

    I agree with much of what you say, but I also disagree. Even in social studies and English, some facts are indisputably just that — facts. A gerund can be used in certain ways, but not in others. The success of the American revolution gave hope to the French that it was possible for ordinary people to overthrow a despotic ruler. These can be considered, turned over, looked at from different perspectives, but they remain facts, actually. I am not an historian, but I am enough of a conservative to be irritated, even at times angered by revisionists who choose to interpret the “facts” of history as something less than true. Even the “Truthsters” who claim that someone inside of our government planned the 9/11 attacks and blamed them on Muslim radicals are only following the popular trend of looking at facts from another angle and finding them to be different facts altogether.

    I think the problem with looking too closely at historical “facts” is that we tend to look at them through the prism of today’s complicated world. I gave a class a poem about a young boy who was excited about seeing his father come home from work, who would put his feet on top of his father’s much bigger feet and dance about the kitchen with him, his face pressing against his father’s belt buckle. My students all thought the poem was about child abuse and that the father was not dancing with him, but beating him up. They could not look at the poem through the eyes of a simpler world where abuse happened, but was not talked about or written about in published poems. That is what avoiding “actually” sometimes creates. Many English teachers would argue here that it is not wrong to interpret a poem in that manner, but I believe there is something horrifically wrong in taking a delightful memory a poet had of his father and turning it into a political statement just because that is what we do now.

    Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners. But that in no way diminishes what they did for the formation of our nation. Edgar Allen Poe was an alcoholic but he created marvelous stories and poems. Sometimes looking at history or “facts” too many ways changes history. We need to know history to avoid repeating it, but we don’t need to change history to fit the way we believe it should be or to interpret it in the light of what we now know. Some events actually happened. Some things actually are. Looking at them differently doesn’t change them, it only changes our understanding of them. Avoiding actually entirely can produce students that believe that black and white do not exist and never did. I have to believe that is wrong.

    September 14, 2010
    • Thank you Jane– this is a very perceptive and thoughtful reply, and I don’t think I disagree with a single point you make.

      I did try to acknowledge in my third paragraph that my argument was not comprehensive, and I am sure you appreciate that my remarks were rhetorical in scope: intended to provoke more thoughtfulness about how we use actually, and to induce a wider use of what Langer calls drawing distinctions,but not meant to be taken too absolutely.

      Your point about historical facts is very well taken, and I remember well teaching US History in Berkeley California in the early nineties to a very politicized group of students, and indeed, some students there did seek to undermine any and all historical factdom, which deeply troubled me and complicated my teaching, to be sure.

      But I am just as worried about the opposite today: either a complacency about historical knowledge, or too quick an embrace of a radicalized alternative worldview (and I would say what bothers me most about the “Truthsters” is when they say : “actually, the WTC towers were rigged to detonate from the inside” rather than saying “I believe there may be some factual evidence which complicates and perhaps undermines the conventional understanding of what happened.” For the record, I am anything but a “truthster.” )

      Your point is also important when we look at the complexity of discussing evolutionary “theory,” which some seek to undermine, and challenge scientific rationalists when they claim it “actually” happened. Now, I don’t think they are frequently using the form of good faith critical inquiry I am advocating, (I think they are using or abusing or misusing or distorting it), they are instead using it as camouflage to advocate for an unscientific, irrational “knowledge.” But nonetheless, and to your point, we need to be able to express and articulate firmly that evolutionary theory is based on strong and compelling “actual” facts.

      September 15, 2010
  2. Lyn Hilt said:

    I just read Teaching to Facilitate Progressive Schematization (Dolk, Uittenbogaard, Fosnot) as well as Mindfulness and Teaching by James Rhem featuring work by Ellen J. Langer which really support your points here. We won’t move students from levels of concrete to formal thinking unless we develop their “mindfulness” and “infuse all that they know with a health uncertainty.” Continuously impressing upon students that what they “know” to be true or fact may not actually be the only answer/fact will cause them to acknowledge and explore various other possibilities that exist, thus strengthening the teaching and learning process.
    I enjoyed your post!

    September 15, 2010

Comments are closed.