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:

  1. 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’.
  2. Not all knowledge is equal. Some propositional knowledge has more power than other propositional knowledge.
  3. Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Here’s why:

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

Related posts

It’s not what you know…oh hang on, it IS what you know
Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having

13 Responses to Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’*

  1. […] via Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  2. David says:

    I liked this, but I don’t really understand why building resilience and a cognitively challenging curriculum would be either/or. I would have thought you couldn’t build resilience unless it was through challenge. Could you clarify please?

  3. ‘Success without risk or effort is of little value’ – totally agree. Am not sure whether resilient behaviour can emerge from anything other than a cognitively challenging curriculum. I think we are a challenge seeking species and enjoy wrestling with demanding stuff. I had a play with procedural and low level propositional knowledge in the summer:

  4. John Tomsett says:

    I agree with you entirely. Honest.

  5. Debaser says:

    I think the issue is that in an ideal world this dichotomy shouldn’t exist. High level thinking skills and deep knowledge should be seen as interdependent phenomena. High level thinking ‘skills’ like ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’ are necessary to access deeper levels of knowledge.On the other hand, these skills can only be developed if students are exposed to sufficiently complex material. I think a lot of the people who want to shut down the debate have an intuitive grasp of this interdependence, and that’s why they feel the argument is now redundant.

    However, as Joe Kirkby points out in his blog, there are many people out there in education who are still in thrall to a contsructivist, skills-centred agenda. For them, the dichotomy is very much a living, breathing ideological entity. This is the kind of thinking which needs to be challenged.

  6. […] It is vital that knowledge does not get swallowed up in compromise. David Didau argues that “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled”- and I agree that sometimes having strong principles and not being willing to compromise is […]

  7. janetadavies says:

    Actually, I have spent a great deal of time writing about the way the arguments surrounding the ” either/or” and the idea of “and/both.” As I have come to understand these two dichotomies, if you will, is to look underneath, to dig deeper into what is driving the challenge.

    Whenever the argument is put forth as an “either/or” challenge, as “You’re either with this idea or against this idea” then the thinking is following a Newtonian scientific basis of argument, or the old science of how we looked at the world. This way of thinking helped us understand many concepts, solve many problems and has held sway for a very long time, enabling us to do many things. It’s very black or white, with little tolerance for the gray areas.

    Science has progressed and the world has changed and we are now in the “atomic age.” Chaos theory is real and we now know the distance between two points is not a straight line but a wavy one. This brings us to the place where we can consider “and/both.” We can consider the black areas, the white ones and make room the complexity of the the two in the gray area. We can provide a challenging curriculum, facilitate ways for the students to discover some of the ideas on their “own” through various provocations set up by the educators and the material. So we don’t have to limit the argument to “either/or” but rather include both possibilities, and open the dialogue up to include more than one point of view.
    Looking at the ways the Italian community of Reggio Emilia has embraced the future with their incredible view of education, and the steps they have taken to provide many contexts that offer ways into complexity, and cognitively challenging curriculum is a perfect example of this.
    They have put forth an exciting model of the “and/both” of education that is motivating many different educators around the world to be inspired by their work.

  8. […] debate online in recent weeks on the knowledge-skills dichotomy, particularly the post written by David Didau. Generally speaking, I am in agreement with David that the debate is worth having and that we […]

  9. […] and SSAT are charging £15 plus £2.95 P&P which seems a bit steep.) Interesting because “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled“. Or to put it less starkly, Matthew Arnold’s view that education should be about […]

  10. […] Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know! […]

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