Last weekend a twitter debate started on Friday night between myself and David Didau, with various other people keen to express a view on whether the knowledge versus skills debate is a false dichotomy, which rolled onto Saturday involving Alex Quigley and Joe Kirby.
This post is not intended to shut down the knowledge versus skills debate, I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. I’m happy for others to have the debate but I am in a different jungle and more interested in engaging in different debates. Education is for wisdom, not simply knowledge nor simply skills.
Standing On the Mountain Top
The curriculum is part of a greater whole. It is the servant of what we ultimately consider to be the purpose of education and consequently what we would want an educated person to be. The curriculum breathes our vision and values of education into the daily lived experiences of the people who work in our schools.
The detailed discussions that occur around a knowledge or skills based curriculum are in the “wrong jungle”. If the educated are to be wise they will need a broad and deep factual knowledge and understanding, the procedural and metacognitive skills to enable them to transfer and apply this knowledge and a moral compass to ensure they use their knowledge and skills for their own and others benefit.
We need a coherent view of the purpose of education and what an educated person in the 21st Century should be. From this perspective the curriculum can then be designed and constructed to help meet these aims. Whilst many changes have occurred, over the years, in education we have no nationally agreed purpose for the education we offer. This may be a good thing as it allows for individuality and different positions to be taken but clearly it leaves the problem of no unifying direction or outcome to our collective educational efforts.
Skilled Psycopaths, Educated Eichmanns
The letter from the Boston Head teacher is poignant and moving. She had seen things “what no-one should witness”.
Prior to discussing a knowledge or skills based curriculum, we should commit to ensuring, however capable our students become, they have a moral compass that directs their actions towards that which is good, enriching and life-giving to themselves and others. Neither a knowledge or skills based curriculum will do this but it should be an essential element of a child’s education and what we consider an educated person to be. This is why sometimes standing on a mountain top and reflecting, to see the whole picture, is an important part of our curriculum thinking and planning.
Knowledge is King or Skills are King
People who are ardent proponents of a factual and conceptual knowledge based curriculum, are like many groups, a “wide church”. Equally so are the people who propose that skills (procedural and metacognitive knowledge) are king. Both groups have a particular position but it is important to realise there are different and important nuances actually between the members within each group.
3Cs of Knowledge – Consumers, Communicators and Creators
Part of being truly educated is to be a consumer, communicator and creator of knowledge. A curriculum that is rich and deep in factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge is more likely to achieve these three inter-related aims.
The consumer stage of knowledge requires us to be taught important facts on which our deeper understanding may be formed. I accept that the determination of what constitutes “cultural literacy” is always going to be difficult and in many ways will form a moving feast. This does not then mean that a content free curriculum should necessarily follow as a coherent argument. As a scientist, I would argue dynamic equilibrium, terminal velocity and Mendelian genetics are all valuable. An understanding of how particles, forces and genes interact is an important part of us understanding the World around us. The complexity of thought required, by a student, in looking at interacting factors is hugely valuable. This becomes even more so if the metacognitive dimension of learning is also engaged at this point.
As communicators of knowledge we will be able to describe and explain what we have learnt to others including successfully doing so to pass important examinations. Communicators form part of a wide body of people who help educate a nation.
A creator of knowledge can work at the edge of what they know to construct, re-construct and co-construct new knowledge and greater understanding. This requires a different set of skills associated with subject procedural knowledge – knowing how to act like a scientist, historian or linguist – and metacognitive knowledge.
The first two Cs can be achieved successfully by a factual and conceptually rich knowledge based curriculum. However, this curriculum on its own will not support a person to create knowledge.
My concern around the “Knowledge is King” curriculum approach – the factual and conceptual dimensions of knowledge – is that it will only meet two of the “Cs”. Students can acquire the requisite knowledge and facts and communicate them highly effectively, for example, in A-level examinations where they may achieve excellent grades. However a relative lack of the habits of mind, procedural skills and metacognitive skills means that when required to create “new knowledge”, to work beyond what we already know they stumble and falter. They come to the precipice of what they know and cannot go any further.
Counsellors at Oxbridge universities talk of helping students who develop “Imposter Syndrome”, though it is by no means limited to these universities or academia. This is a worrying psychological condition that can lead to bouts of anxiety and depression where a student feels unworthy of their place at the university as they are challenged to go beyond that which is known and lack the skills to do it. It is not that they are incapable of creating knowledge, it is that they have experienced a “hothouse knowledge is king curriculum” that has only partially prepared them for university life. Our students deserve better than this.
I’ve Discovered the Wheel!
Teaching procedural and metacognitive skills is highly likely to give the student the skills required to be a creator or knowledge. A student who has experienced a rich skills based curriculum is able to go beyond the precipice of their knowledge but sadly the precipice isn’t ever very far from their starting point – too much time going around in circles without clear direction leads to a lack of progress.
Teaching skills is in a vacuum of factual and conceptual knowledge doesn’t make sense or serve any particular purpose. I came to this view, in my second year of teaching in 1989, when sat in a conference on Process Science. It was suggested that we set our students a homework task to observe soap bubbles for thirty minutes to help improve their observational skills. Mind numbing I thought then and mind numbing I still think now.
The dangers in teaching a skills only curriculum, or one that is very biased in that knowledge dimension, is students can spend a lot of time discovering what we already know.
However, some skills are transferable particularly those associated with metacognitive knowledge. The comprehension of a text and extraction of key information from it is a skill that is transferable across the curriculum. Time spent explicitly teaching this skill will be paid back a hundredfold. The following learning protocol was adapted from a process called “Reciprocal Teaching” (Hattie, 2009, Visible Learning, pp. 203-204). It needs explicit teaching, consistency in application across the curriculum and students drilling in the approach until it is second nature to them.
For comparison against this strategy of Reciprocal Teaching (d=0.74, Rank=9th) or teaching metacognitive strategies (d=0.69, Rank=13th) compare very favourably to the strategy of direct instruction which has a d=0.59 and is ranked 26th in Hattie, 2009, Visible Learning. This doesn’t mean that direct instruction has now suddenly become a poor strategy; it is a very useful strategy and should be part of every teacher’s repertoire. However, the impact of reciprocal teaching and metacognitive strategies is also very high and these should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire as well.
Whilst accepting some subject procedural skills and “habits of mind” may not easily transferable, from one disciple or subject domain to another, this does negate their value within the subject. They help produce a disciplined mind and an understanding of key ways of working.
Moving to A Different Jungle
Joe Kirby in a very well argued and respectful post, Why We Shouldn’t Close Down the Skills Knowledge Debate, kindly suggested that myself, Alex Quigley and Tom Sherrington were moderators and mediators. His argument was interesting and summarised his opposition to our perspective with reference to one student thinking 20% of one hundred was 20 and another thinking it was 30 doesn’t mean the answer is 25!
I think Alex, Tom and my position and perspective is not one of compromise, moderation or mediation, we are not interested in maintaining the status quo. We would consider ourselves (rightly or wrongly) quite radical in our thinking. We reject certain aspects of both the knowledge and skills only positions and fully embrace other elements.
It is a different curriculum, a different student and a different future we are trying to co-create.
The Three Golden Strands
If you want to strengthen three golden threads then intertwine them.
Factual and conceptual knowledge, procedural and metacognitive knowledge and a moral compass are interdependent elements. Some skills are transferable and when taught within a cognitively challenging curriculum act as accelerators of learning and increase achievement. If we want educated citizens in the 21st Century to be consumers, communicators and creators of knowledge then the knowledge versus skills debate is a false dichotomy, it isn’t “or” it is “and”. Intertwining the best elements of both requires different thinking and a different debate.
Bring on #Vis2040, it is the right debate, in the right jungle and will require new thinking from us all.