I teach, therefore I am.
Like many fellow Twitter users, I’ve become fairly bored with the knowledge vs. skills debate; not because I think it’s a false dichotomy or not worthy of discussion but because I want to move the debate forward. There are now a number of people, schools and institutions for whom the knowledge vs. skills debate has been answered and the answer is: knowledge for the win. So what next?
I’m of the opinion that, even amongst the knowledge community, there is no shared clear definition of ‘knowledge’ and teaching a ‘knowledge-led/knowledge-rich curriculum’. Perhaps we can determine that there doesn’t need to be one way to view this but we should be having the debates and discussions which unpick what is being meant when we talk about knowledge. This is as important for those wanting to continue the knowledge vs skills debate as it is for those who wish to embrace a knowledge-led approach.
What is it we mean when we talk about ‘knowledge’? One of the arguments in the knowledge vs skills debate is that every school teaches knowledge and therefore it is a false dichotomy. Those of us who argue for the importance of a focus on knowledge, are sceptical of this claim, yet the argument continues. Many see this as evidence of one group being in denial/reductive in their thinking (accusations of such seem to fling both ways). More recently I have begun to wonder whether some of this may actually be a result of us having different ideas of what ‘knowledge’ means. The knowledge community have perhaps assumed implicit understanding of what ‘knowledge’ is, that has in fact not been clearly outlined. We need to be ready to answer this question amongst ourselves and articulate this. To do this, requires considering a number of different questions, such as: Is knowledge simply the acquisition of facts? How does this link to the idea of the transformative effect of engaging with and critiquing knowledge? Does knowledge when referenced by the knowledge community have an implied focus on a certain body of knowledge? What is this body of knowledge – do the knowledge community agree about this? Who should be determining what this body of knowledge is and how do we make the specific content choices about what should be taught in our schools?
This question about who determines the content of the curriculum provokes us to also ask: how does the idea of knowledge link to academic disciplines? For understanding knowledge in relation to academic disciplines has implications for curriculum design. How should knowledge be ordered and sequenced? Should this be influenced by an understanding of academic disciplines and their structure or should it be influenced by the growing body of knowledge around memory stemming from cognitive science? Is this an either/or question or do the two blend naturally? And what does all of this mean for assessment?
When considering these different influences on curriculum and assessment design, this opens up the conversation around the level of prescription required in both the curriculum and in teaching methods. For some a ‘knowledge curriculum’ is synonymous with traditional teaching methods and a fairly prescriptive curriculum structure. For others it is a more autonomous process – for both teacher and pupil – which can include the use of progressive teaching methods and resources. Is there one right answer here and does it matter if we disagree?
Cara Bleiman picked up on some of these tensions in her blog. In particular, her comment about reclaiming the idea of teaching as an ‘intellectual profession’ suggests that the knowledge community have not fully articulated their role in this or how to balance between this as the ideal and the reality of the current education system. Should we accept that we will never reach the ideal and set up a prescriptive system based on the thinking of those who are interested in knowledge and a knowledge curriculum or should we aim to win hearts and minds, to share the arguments until teachers and schools choose knowledge themselves?
These are just some of the questions we will be considering at the East London Science School event on February 11th at the Wellcome Collection, with a number of prominent educational thinkers to help provoke debate and guide the discussion. (See schedule below) If you’re interested in being involved, tickets are on sale here: Choosing Knowledge.