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The Great Knowledge vs Skills (Non?)Debate?

I’m wondering if I’m alone at the moment. It’s not an existential question. I’m just considering a flurry of recent, very well written, researched and considered blog posts around both sides of a debate that appears to exist but that I’ve never come across anywhere else other than Twitter. The many, again excellent, accounts of the festival of education provided enough different views of the debate between Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodoulou to at least attempt to piece together the thread that exists commonly outside the observer bias. The assertion that “knowledge is important” appeared to be a statement that both of these luminaries could agree on.

I think the majority of teachers agree on this.

I’m wondering if this is a non-debate.

I’m currently reading Daisy Christodoulou’s book, “Seven Myths About Education” (isn’t everyone!), and, so far she makes a very clear case for the reasons that certain fads in education have pervaded. The most convincing aspect so far is that the discourse of Ofsted in terms of the most successful lessons suggests those features that are counter intuitive to many experienced teachers: the lack of teacher talk and distilled content to name a couple. For me, the most important aspect of the knowledge vs skills argument that continues to plod along, or “blog” along, is that we’re missing the point. These two aspects of learning are stronger together and, I would suggest, exist together in more classrooms than the impassioned debaters have had the pleasure to witness.

knowledge-is-powerI don’t subscribe to the suggestion that there is some kind of “knowledge apartheid” in our schools or that we are successively dumbing down content in order to focus more closely on skills. I’ve worked across a range of schools as an AST and I’m yet to see evidence of this. If anything, particularly in more challenging contexts, where students may well come from the much discussed “working class home” without access to the background knowledge needed, teachers just need to be given a gentle push to ask more of their students and challenge them with the knowledge and skills often bemoaned as having been denied them. These teachers just wanted those kids to succeed and gain some self esteem. They weren’t wrong they needed to be given the confidence to share something more challenging.

When I started considering writing these ideas up, what I set out to do was demonstrate, using some of the most common texts used in English, how knowledge and skills coexist to make for more meaningful learning experiences. The germ of this idea was from reading Harry Webb’s (@websofsubstance) blog, “Why We Don’t Need a ‘Pub Quiz’ Curriculum” which, I think may have been his response to an exchange with Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley) in the comments to her blog, “Dead White Dudes” (it’s a great discussion, read it – you’ll learn a lot and recognise some points). Harry Webb discusses one of the approaches that ED Hirsch took in considering the knowledge that would make a person “culturally literate”. He imagined the background knowledge required to engage with and fully understand an edition of The New York Times – working back from that point to how that knowledge should be “layered” into a curriculum.

I first came across ED Hirsch in a Curriculum Development module for my MA (that’s not a qualifications “drop” – I’m not finished yet!) and the presentation of this guy in relation to the way that cabinet ministers brandish his book certainly made me respond in a less than measured way. Since then the reading and research I have done allows me to see him for what I hope he really is: a nice old fella who, when witnessing the inequality in education, particularly for minority students, decided to form a theory as to how this can be tackled at a systemic level. An admirable quest but one fraught with downfalls that he himself has expressed, (here and here) in the way that, like it or not, the political right do align themselves next to him in a bid to buy themselves the hearts and minds of those who claim the primacy of a “dominant culture”. It’s kind of nice that the man himself is uncomfortable with this alignment.

The process that Hirsch carried out with The New York Times is exactly what the average English teacher (should?) do(es) before teaching a text. It is extremely difficult to teach “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or “Belfast Confetti” for example, without the background “knowledge” of the Crimea and the disastrous tactical mistakes that led to the incident that inspired the poem or indeed the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland and their prevalence in the mainland UK. I’m 38, and remember the profile of the IRA, teenagers today don’t realise that “war” as such can be carried out on residential streets similar to those that they live on today – their frame of reference is very different – the literature and language is only enhanced in its power by underlining the facts, context or knowledge that underpins it. Similarly, when teaching Language Change to Year 13 English Language students i always cover the chronology before anything else. Consider, “Lord of the Flies”, “An Inspector Calls” and “Of Mice and Men”: three texts commonly used at Key Stage 4 in many schools. How do skills and knowledge coexist to produce more profitable learning?

(I offer two disclaimers: that these do not constitute exhaustive lists and that I am, by no means, against the reading of texts purely for pleasure. I would contend though, that the knowledge of the wider context of these texts enhances the readers’ enjoyment of them – but I would say that, I’m an English teacher.)

Lord of the Flies

Knowledge

Skills

  • The Second World War

  • The Cold War

  • The importance of Fables

  • Democracy as opposed to Dictatorship

  • Religion – Original Sin and the importance of the “Christ” figure

  • Consideration of evolution and human nature – regression and savagery

  • Golding’s life and career – particularly as a teacher in an all boys school and time at war

  • The importance of “masks” and pagan culture

  • “The Coral Island”, Ballantyne and the “Colonial” interpretation of dominant cultures

  • Appreciation of allegory, metaphor and the importance of form – fables

  • Analysis of plot, character development and structure

  • Close reading and language analysis – particularly imagery

  • Recall and retrieval of information to exemplify interpretations

  • Analysis of a “writer at work”

  • Constructing extended responses

An Inspector Calls

Knowledge

Skills

  • The Second World War

  • The political continuum from Socialist (potentially communist) to Capitalist (or further?)

  • Priestley’s political views

  • The Morality Play – characters as representations of ideas or concepts – didactic purpose (Medieval form and more recent incarnations in film)

  • The post war context – the creation of the Welfare State (in comparison to the 1912 context)

  • The class system

  • Dramatic techniques- dramatic irony etc

  • Reading a “play” text, understanding of how stage directions work and audience in terms of written for the actors to interpret and perform.

  • The importance of interpreting the form – morality play

  • Analysis of plot, character development and structure

  • Close reading and language analysis – particularly symbolism

  • Recall and retrieval of information to exemplify interpretations

  • Analysis of a “writer at work”

  • Constructing extended responses

Of Mice and Men

Knowledge

Skills

  • 1930s America, The Great Depression, the “Dustbowl”, poverty and migration

  • Dorothea Lange photography of the period, e.g. “Migrant Mother”

  • Animal fables

  • Racism and sexual politics of the period

  • The American Dream – perhaps related to immigration to America as a “land of opportunity” and the “Hollywood” ideal of fame and fortune

  • Analysis of plot, character development and structure

  • Close reading and language analysis – particularly symbolism, metaphor and foreshadowing

  • Recall and retrieval of information to exemplify interpretations

  • Analysis of a “writer at work” – particularly in terms of manipulation of empathy and structure

  • Constructing extended responses

I never teach any of these texts without teaching and covering at least a significant chunk of the “knowledge” column to all ability levels. In my opinion, and I don’t think I’m alone, it enhances the learning and the understanding of the texts. That wonderful moment when kids recognise that it’s not “just a story” is always rewarding. The learning and coverage of this information is part of the study of literature and language for me and not two sets of distinct curricula. In reading “Clay” by David Almond with a Year 7 group this last term, the knowledge required to make real sense of the novel is huge. Coverage of Frankenstein; the Prometheus myths; Catholicism and Protestantism and the associated conflicts; religious ideas of creation and death; Catholic rituals; exorcism and the list could go on. We enjoyed the reading because the story is good but the reading precipitated the need for the knowledge. The knowledge aided understanding.

When training teachers in the use of APP (I can hear the boos!), I used to ask them first to create an assessment grid for a simple task like making a phone call. I asked them to consider the various skills that were needed to successfully carry out the task, e.g. technical acumen, language use etc. I then suggested that they use Bloom’s Taxonomy to structure the progression in skills as the levels increased in complexity.

blooms_taxonomy

This made for many an interesting exchange in which I learned a lot about the difference between knowledge and comprehension or understanding. Knowing that you need to hold a phone up to your ear and mouth to make a call simply means that you have observed it happen and have remembered what it looked like. Knowing that you need to know someone’s phone number doesn’t mean that you understand that everyone has a unique number that identifies only them for the communication. One doesn’t work without the other. It is an interplay and a complex one at that.

The idea of a coherent set of knowledge that “everyone should know” is seductive in that it would make our lives easier, should it work. My concern is in the selection of the knowledge and the material that is deemed necessary and that is why we need to come closer to each other in terms of our beliefs about the importance of each item whether it be “knowledge” or “skills”. As long as we do interrogate each others’ approaches and ask each other the important questions then we may well place the “checks and balances” that would be required to protect the curriculum from representing one view or “dominant culture”.

I’m not quite suggesting that “we’ve all had a drink” and that we should put our differences behind us. What I am saying is that the debate and the coexistence of each “camp” can potentially make us stronger as educators. The debate, as long as we’re listening, means we can borrow and enhance each others’ practice with those nuggets we allow ourselves to glean. For me though, we’re closer than we appear to be.