If I’m honest, I’m tired of all the arguing and barracking that goes on on Twitter about the supposed knowledge vs skills “debate”. It strikes me that there are very few teachers who suggest even for a second that knowledge is not important, and rather too many who are adamant that there are millions of that ilk.
I’ve mostly been on the sidelines of the whole thing for a few reasons.
Firstly, I don’t buy into the notion that there is anyone at either extreme, despite the fact that many claim it. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t think that part of their job was to impart knowledge, and I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t include some development of skills in their work, despite protestations to the contrary.
Secondly, it took me a while to work out where I stand. Like so many others, it seemed perfectly sensible to me that the shared wisdom that knowledge was easily available, whereas skills needing teaching, was a sensible approach to take. And indeed, I stand by that to some extent. Surely no-one could argue that we don’t need to develop a critical eye in students, for example? I know of many knowledgeable people who are nonetheless persuaded to buy, read, and worse believe, some of the nonsense they see written in the press. Knowledge itself is not a panacea.
Thirdly, I also can’t stand getting involved in silly playground arguments. I don’t tolerate them at school, and I’m certainly not going to encourage or engage in more at home.
However, I have, inevitably, seen much to-ing and fro-ing on Twitter and am beginning to draw my own frame of understanding. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the debate is not about knowledge vs skills at all; or at least, it shouldn’t be. I think it’s more about exposure vs instillation.
I am a huge fan of knowledge. It’s one of the things I love about teaching; it allows me the opportunity to share knowledge and to gain more. Doubtless some colleagues and friends will happily confirm that I am, sometimes, too willing to impart what knowledge I have – whether or not it is requested. However, the more I look at what I have achieved over years of teaching materials, the more I wonder about the role knowledge played in my work.
For example, over the years of teaching History, despite what Mr Gove might think, I have frequently taught about Churchill, the Battle of Hastings, the myriad causes of the First World War, the signing of the Magna Carta, etc. But I can’t help but wonder how some of my former students might cope on a Premier Inn-style pop quiz of their knowledge.
In too many cases, I may have been guilty not of failing to include knowledge in my teaching, but of placing too much emphasis on the exposure to knowledge, and not enough emphasis on the real absorption and retention of that knowledge.
My recent thinking has unquestionably been shaped by reading Willingham’s fantastically readable analysis of cognitive science in education, but also by my broader awareness of the work of Hirsch and others. Now, let me state immediately, I am not in any way suggesting that I support an centrally-dictated framework knowledge which must be installed into all young minds at all costs. That is not my philosophy in the slightest. And for that reason, I still think it a tragic waste that the new curriculum focuses solely on knowledge, as if there were no progression of skill to be developed in our students.
I am, though, arguing that those of us who find such knowledge-rich,-everything-else-poor suggestions so disturbing, might nonetheless want to look just a little more deeply at how we do make use of knowledge in our classrooms. After all, if I think that the events of 1066 really are worth teaching, then aren’t they maybe also worth learning… even knowing?