This is a bit of a stream of consciousness post…I’m just throwing out thoughts that I have on this issue in an unstructured manner.
Here’s a Quick Quiz starter to warm you up:
- What is the capital of Equatorial Guinea?
- What is the highest flow rate of the Zambezi River?
- Name five members of the Shadow Cabinet in 1958
- How many prime numbers lie between 101 and 1001?
- By what other name is the classic short story ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak known?
- What is the key molecular structural difference between a gel and a foam?
- Which Battalion in the Crimean War suffered the greatest losses?
- What, in detail, were the key reforms sought by the Anti-Corn Law League formed in 1838?
- Who won the FA Cup in 1891?
- What is the value of the Electric Permittivity of Free Space?
- What happens to Sam in ‘The Fear’ by Charlie Higson?
- Berapa lama tingal disini?
- What is the keyboard shortcut for a screen shot on an imac?
- What are the structural characteristics of the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 1st Symphony in D Major?
- How many kJ of energy are contained in a This Juicy Water Lemon and Limes drink per 100ml?
- How was the Chamizal Dispute resolved?
- Name three 18th Century Prime Ministers.
Knowledge. KNOWLEDGE. You can’t get enough of it. No-one every complains of having too much knowledge. My son can name a full squad of footballers derived from the Bundesliga or from Brazil. My wife can name all the plants in the garden. My daughter is an expert on the life and times of Katniss Everdeen. I know none of these things but I can name 10 education bloggers who know a lot about knowing knowledge.. and I know all the answers to the quiz.
I know Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism; but I don’t know useful things like how to fix the boiler or give CPR. I have a Masters in Development Studies – so I know quite a lot about UN intervention in Somalia from 1991-93 even though it is of little use to anyone now. I can’t make a cake without a recipe even though I’ve done it lots of times. I used to know how to use eigenvectors in conjunction with Schrodinger’s equation to solve quantum mechanics problems… but don’t ask me now. That’s long gone. I know how to toggle the ‘favourite’ status on a tweet but I can’t work out the controls on a FiFA13 console despite trying for hours. I know the back-catalogue of Echo and the Bunnymen and Eyeless in Gaza but know nothing of Brahms, Smetana and N Dubz…except their names; although I know that I don’t know any of their work.
What is the point of knowledge? Is it enough just to know - like a stone or a blade of grass which have no intrinsic purpose per se; they just exist. Is knowing for knowing’s sake valid/invalid?; does knowledge only have value through utility; through practical application? Whatever the answer, surely there is no debate about whether knowledge matters in some form. If you think we’re ‘preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet’, or that straight-up fact-delivery is doing just that anyway… is there a meaningful debate on this that takes us anywhere?
Is it useful to answer this question? ‘Is it more important to know facts than to have the skills to find out?’ Or to resolve this: you need a good bedrock of factual knowledge to understand the context of any text….but you need to understand the context for factual knowledge to make enough sense to learn it in the first place?
Is it not more important to answer these questions:
- Which bits of knowledge should we all know in order to function as citizens of one family, community, nation, planet?
- Which knowledge areas are arbitrary or subject to cultural or personal preference and which areas are universal?
- In a democracy, who decides these things? Does a class teacher (unelected but someone I can talk to) have more or less right to decide than a Secretary of State (elected but not by me)… or should parents have a say? Can students meaningfully determine content of their curriculum if they don’t know what there is to know?
- Are there identifiable, reproducible ways to acquire knowledge that are more effective than others?
- Are there ways of acquiring knowledge that can also enable us to develop skills and personal attributes that we might not otherwise develop?
- Is it actually that the quality of any process is much more critical than the process itself – ie a poor fact-driven teacher vs a superb ‘learning power’ driven teacher – or the other way around?
- Are competency-curriculum models and knowledge-based curriculum models ultimately that different or do we have the scale wrong? Is it ‘milk first, then tea’ vs ‘tea first then milk’… rather than tea or juice? (Still with me?)
Recent Y6 Learning Episodes.
At my son’s school they have a regular lesson called: ‘Topic‘. In the Spring they did ‘Raging Rivers’.
Scene-setting homework: Find out about a river of your choice. My son was on the internet for an hour or so and made an A4 factfile on the Nile featuring a map, some photos and some facts. List the skills needed to do that… and the knowledge. He learned that the Nile passes through lots of countries; that only 20+% of it is in Eqypt; where it starts and how narrow the fertile region is on either side. He now knows all of these facts; at one point he could recite the countries in order that the Nile passes through. He does not know any of this about the Amazon or the Mississippi – but he could find out; he learned about the Nile by himself. Since then he did a lot of classwork and he told me yesterday about ox-bow lakes, meanders and flood plains. He was taught this stuff and found it interesting.
This term ‘Topic’ features World War II. I envy my son this opportunity… and my daughter who is doing this at GCSE. I know lots about spinning jennies and road building in the 18th century…but war was apparently out of fashion in the 1970s when I did History .
My son’s preparatory homework: ‘Find out about WWII’: Giantly open question. He used a good BBC website which he selected (ie he hadn’t been asked to use it) and wrote a page of notes in preparation for the first whole-class lesson. He found out that more civilians died than soldiers; which nations formed the ‘allies’ – even though he pronounced this ‘allees’ until I put him straight. He found out the dates and the names of the main military personnel. He noted that the ‘fun facts’ feature of the site seemed inappropriate next to a section on the Holocaust. In the lesson they shared their findings to ‘get the conversation started’. My son uses ‘conversation’ instead of ‘discussion’. They had a conversation about the Holocaust in class recently; ‘conversation’ lessons are his favourite kind he tells me: “no writing or powerpoint, just talking and listening to everyone’s ideas.” Later Topic linked with English: after watching a video, they wrote empathetic diary entries based on Londoners’ experience in the Blitz and the teacher gave a visual quiz the following week; they had to recall the faces of Stalin, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain. He said he knew them.
Skills, knowledge, skills, knowledge..In all of this where does one end and one begin in any helpful sense? At least in Chicken and Egg, we know the answer is Egg. Definitely Egg. But Knowledge vs Skills?? It’s much less clear to me.
Y11 Physics Experiences.
In the run-in to the exams this summer, I noticed that my Y11 sloggers and plodders were doing better on the past-paper questions than some of the intuitive thinkers who are less inclined to swot and less linear. This may show in the final results.
My best ever GCSE results from a class came after a mad cramming dash to the finish in a reduced-time situation where every lesson featured past-paper questions. Teaching to the test to the max. It worked. A*s galore. Physics take-up at Alevel – not good. Did they enjoy it? No. Were they better at Physics? No.
My Co-construction approach has allowed us to cover the full iGCSE syllabus in full. I’m anticipating strong results this summer. But, along the way, they had opportunities to plan a lesson, to explain some concepts to a whole class; to organise themselves and take responsibility for organising equipment; and to assess their peers work by marking books and giving feedback. They developed some skills that are not required for a GCSE syllabus and which will never be assessed. They also know a lot of physics facts.
My students are given a formula book with the equations of motion. I know them off by heart.. I never have to look them up and feel good about that. But does that make me better at Physics? No. It’s just handy. Similarly I know the mass of an electron, the specific heat capacity of water, and the value of mass of a pion in mega-electron-volts. I’d like to know what the Standard Model Equations actually mean at a mathematical level but I fear my neural pathways don’t stretch that far…(if that’s how it works).
I once had to teach about colloids and gels for an iGCSE Chemistry course. I had no idea what they were. I learned it from the text book, taught it and forgot it soon after. What is a colloid? I don’t know..I’ll have to look it up again. This is as close as I’ve ever come to feeling that learning facts for the sake of an exam is pointless. It could have been this: An ibble is an obble made of collections of dibbles linked by miffles – shown in an abstract diagram. EXAM: How are miffles, dibbles and obbles connected to form ibbles? Answer: Copy out the diagram learned from memory! A bit like the Dylan Wiliam water diagram: show students a model of water molecules….they often still think the water is in between the molecules.
If you tell me (as a learner, parent or teacher) that a curriculum is NOT about knowledge – it is about skills - I will think it must be soft waffle that I’d run a mile from. If you tell me that, by focusing on skills and planning explicitly for skill development, we will be delivering a curriculum packed with knowledge… I will think about it differently. If you say the primary objective of a lesson is to develop resilience and team working skills… I will be dubious. If, however, you say that through a set of activities based on developing deep level knowledge and understanding in a concrete learning discipline, students will have opportunities to demonstrate resilience and to work in teams… I will think differently about it. Do I want my children to learn History and Geography and Science – as disciplines that hang together based on years of tradition and thought? Yes. Do I care if they spend time self-assessing their capacity for working independently or for collaborative reciprocity? Yes I do… I just want them to get on with it.
Answers to the Quiz:
I learned these things for myself; so can you.