n. pl. di·chot·o·mies
A dichotomy as the dictionary definition above says is two contradictory parts. Contradictory meaning points that oppose each other.
Knowledge and skills are not a dichotomy. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact they go hand in hand.
And yet if you’ve spent any time reading articles from the media about education, or listening to government ministers, or reading recent books, or attending education conferences you might think differently. Spending Saturday last week at the Festival of Education at Wellington College it seemed to me to be the debate du jour.
Experts would have you believe that teachers ally themselves with either side of the dichotomy. That there are those teachers who only teach Knowledge (and it needs a capital!) and spend hours telling students the most important Facts (again, another capital needed). On the other side are those who purely focus on skills (they don’t need a capital), believe the internet is the saviour of education and just do project work, facilitating learning and barely speaking in lessons.
What these ‘experts’ fail to tell you is that this is the absolute minority. In fact any teacher that solely teaches knowledge or skills is letting their students down, as neither can be done in true isolation. Learning needs to be the careful combination of both. Preferably a period of knowledge consumption followed by a period of higher order thinking skills.
And yet the current trend of opinion, especially from the right, would have you believe that any teacher shirks from facts, like a mouse hiding in it’s hole from a cat. The fact that this is not true has been skirted over.
I personally love my subject and as a passionate historian I want my students to absorb knowledge and facts about the past in the hope that they will become as passionate as I am. I am not the exception to the rule. However I also want them to develop the key skills of the historian; using evidence, developing an argument. And I realise that these two go hand in hand.
Yet I feel ashamed to say I love knowledge at the moment as those who are advocating this side of a non existent dichotomy do so by using rhetoric and logic that is often deeply false and yet is being picked up by the right to justify the rapid changes they are making to the education establishment.
The latest book to do this is the Seven Myths of Education by Daisy Christodoulou which many on Twitter and at the Festival of Education clearly see as a voice of reason and sense.
Unfortunately I am not sure I agree.
Christodoulou sets out to confront the Seven Myths ranging from ‘facts prevent understanding‘ to ‘teaching knowledge is indoctrination‘. For the full list see the Curriculum Centre website:
Before I move on to criticisms there are parts I agree with in the book. I agree that ‘learning to learn‘ cannot be done in discrete lessons. I also think that the Opening Minds course goes too far with the skills focus and I appreciate that there is some acknowledgement that knowledge cannot be separate from skills.
However there is far more that I disagree with. I suppose these are my six myths about the Seven Myths.
Myth 1. Gaining knowledge is a one way system
Throughout the book Christodoulou implies that to learn knowledge the student must be given this by a teacher. The teacher will deliver the facts they want the student to learn. This is plainly naive. Students can and should be encouraged to discover knowledge for themselves and a good teacher will plan their lessons accordingly. In the classroom knowledge need not be a one way system. There are undoubtedly some topics and concepts that will need far more direct teacher input but these are in the minority. With an effective practitioner a learning sequence can be set up where the student discovers this knowledge for themselves or discovers it with peers and where this happens they will learn and remember more than they would have if they had been told. For example the other day I planned a lesson on the Scramble for Africa (Gove would love me). I kept teacher exposition to a minimum (defining key terms and giving background narrative) but with choice sources and careful enquiry construction the students had gained an invaluable evaluation of the new imperialism of the 19th century by the end of the lesson. They gained knowledge. I didn’t give it to them, I just created the opportunities for them to do it. And in doing so they learnt key skills about sources and enquiry.
Myth 2. The internet has not changed things
In Chapter 4 – You can always just look it up – Christodoulou says that the with the invention of the internet the fact that you have a plethora of information at your fingertips does not make teaching facts redundant. She argues that you need long term memory or domain-specific knowledge in order to compute the information in front of you. She uses an example of two enquiries. One a cricket question which she can answer with ease as she has the domain specific knowledge of the game and uses this to find an appropriate website to answer her question. The other a baseball question which she fails at as she has no knowledge of the game. This however is a flawed example. A good internet researcher, and I seriously hope these are the skills we are teaching our kids, would teach the enquirer to break the question down into it’s component parts. Christodoulou, however, says “I did not need to know how to…use Google correctly….I needed to know a lot more about baseball”. This isn’t true. Granted without domain specific knowledge it would take longer but given time the internet would have given you the domain specific knowledge in order to answer the higher level question. If you don’t believe this read the work of Sugata Mitra, his recent article in the Guardian highlights this.
Myth 3. Active learning is not valid
There is also an implication in the book that active learning or project learning is ineffective. In Chapter 6 she quotes the website Active History and gives an example of students experientially learning about the Black Death. What is wrong with this? Has she played it? As a historian I can tell you its packed with fact and through immersion students will gain all precious knowledge. Active learning makes lessons more engaging and hooks our students in. A vast number of studies have proved that happy engaged students will learn more. Why not play to this strength? Earlier this year I did a role of 1066 where we reenacted the battle (Ian Dawson style). The students learnt more that lesson and could still retell the story to great detail than many other more didactic lessons this year.
Myth 4. Children cannot think like an expert
In the same chapter Christodoulou says that activities where students are ‘acting like historians‘ are weak as they cannot act on an expert level and therefore this has no merit. This is ridiculous. No one is implying that a student in Year 8 will think and behave in the same way as a professional historian, for example like my hero Professor Ronald Hutton. But do I want that student to begin to think the same way and develop some of the same strategies and techniques as Ronald? Hell yes. Students can and should question sources, build evidence into an argument and develop opinions as this will make them better historians, better historians who will ultimately acquire more knowledge than if they were just lectured.
Myth 5. Knowledge cannot indoctrinate students
In Chapter 7 Daisy says that “knowledge doesn’t indoctrinate; knowledge liberates” and claims that there is a core knowledge of “cognitive benefit” that all students should have to prepare them for the world. If they have this core knowledge they will be able to cope in the different situations they encounter. To an extent this is true but where this concerns me is who gets to decide what this core knowledge of cognitive benefit is? A core knowledge will always be political as any selection of what facts are more important than others will require the selector to use a value system. This makes it potentially very dangerous and any historian who looks to the twentieth century will see a plethora of examples where different government’s imposed what they believed to be a core knowledge of cognitive benefit upon their citizens to disastrous effect.
Myth 6. OFSTED reports make a sound evidence base
The final point I want to make is the evidence base that this book rests upon. All the vast claims in the book rest upon Christodoulou’s three years of teaching experience and OFSTED reports, mostly the subject specific reports. This is not a sound base to make such claims. The sample size is small and these reports give but a snapshot of the education establishment. Without spending time in the classroom and seeing what ‘normal’ lessons are like, looking through schemes of work, gathering teacher and student voice, I think it is worrying that statements about education, that are being widely quoted in the media and in social media, are being taken as fact.
But please don’t just take my word for it. Read the book. It’s short and an easy read. I’m just not convinced by it. You might be and I doubt that this will be the final say in an argument that has been raging for a very long time.