Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’*
I get quite cross when I hear people who really should know better dismissing the knowledge/skills debate as a “mindless dichotomy“. It’s not. The ideological opposition between proponents of these views is real, pervasive and powerful. The attempt by some educators to pretend that these differences don’t really exist is unhelpful. For the record, here is what I believe:
- Knowledge is transformational. You can’t think about something you don’t know. Once you know a thing it becomes possible to think about it. The thinking, in whatever form it takes, is a ‘skill’.
- Not all knowledge is equal. Some propositional knowledge has more power than other propositional knowledge.
- Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.
- Teaching procedural knowledge instead of, or separately from, propositional knowledge is of very limited use because most procedural knowledge only applies to specific domains. Whilst it may well be true that drama is great for developing resilience in drama, it not much use for developing resilience (or critical thinking) in, say, maths.
- There are grey areas. Learning is wonderfully complex and I certainly don’t know everything (or even all that much) but I do absolutely believe that knowledge must come before application.
In a Twitter conversation with Stephen Tiernay this conflict came to the fore when he said “we learn more from the language of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’.” But I don’t think that’s true. I made the rather bold assertion that compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled. I think we learn much more from interrogating ‘or’. We get to sift ideas through the sieve of our values and beliefs rather than simply throwing everything into a pot and hoping it’ll make a tasty stew. So making a statement like a “cognitively challenging curriculum and developing students’ resilience works for me” is problematic.
A cognitively challenging curriculum is obviously a good thing. It will by necessity be knowledge rich and seek to expand the horizons of students’ minds beyond what they already know by offering them “the best of what’s been thought and known”.
Resilience is also obviously worthwhile. But as Duckworth et al have spent an awful lot of time discovering, we don’t know how to teach it. All we can really do is to encourage resilient behaviour within our cognitively challenging curriculum by make it clear that success without risk or effort is of little value. As teachers we are faced with a choice: do we keep expectations high and therefore insist that they make mistakes, or do we drop the bar so that it’s impossible not to succeed? This is an either/or proposition. You can’t have it both ways. Any attempt to compromise inevitably leads to lowering the bar.
And a decision to take away from a cognitively challenging curriculum to spend time separately developing students’ resilience (or grit, motivation, tenacity or whatever you want to call it) is equally either/or. The time spent on developing resilience is not only unlikely to be profitable, it inevitably means that our cognitively challenging curriculum is less challenging than it would otherwise be. The ‘and’ is a fudge. Compromise merely results in less cognitive challenge.
So, before you start getting all hot under the collar, please think about the points you want to refute. I’m perfectly aware that some people disagree with my beliefs about education; that’s fine – I have learned loads from debating this back and forth and have only arrived at my present position from actually having the debate with those who pointed out the flaws and assumptions in my thinking. The point I really want to make is this: the debate is inherently worth having. Any attempt to close it down by discussing it as ‘mindless’ or ‘sterile’ is offensive and lacking in humility. Asserting that time spent discussing this idea is time wasted, is utterly wrongheaded and dishonest. It reveals an unwillingness to examine the problems inherent in the compromises we are all forced to accept, and suggests that once we have decided our positions, others should be excluded from the debate.
*Kudos to Martin Robinson and his wisdom on the Trivium – the title for this post is paraphrased from his Essex Big Day Out workshop