It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know!

KnowledgeSS-Post

I’m fed up of people who should know better saying they’re bored with the false dichotomy of skills versus knowledge. The knowledge vs skills debate is always worth having because it conceals a more fundamental disagreement (a real dichotomy, if you will.) about what’s most important. Let’s agree that no one is actually advocating that no knowledge is taught. I’m sure this is true. But saying that knowledge is just a foundation for higher order thinking isn’t good enough.

This picture from Joe Kirby’s blog sums it up for me:

knowledgeiceberg2Analysis, application, evaluation and all the rest are the merely the visible tip of what we know, the product of our knowledge. Quite literally, we can’t think about anything we don’t know. Any attempt to suggest that imagination is the ability to think about stuff we don’t know is mistaken. If we try to think about something unknown to us we rely on analogies, symbols and metaphors using thing we do know. (At least, that’s what I reckon – I’m happy to be proved wrong on this.) It’s not good enough to say that, yes of course knowledge is important.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with SOLO taxonomy before realising that it can do more harm than good because the multi-structural stage of the taxonomy (what we know) is often viewed as something to move on from as soon as possible. All too often, getting students from multi-structural to ‘higher order thinking skills’ is used to prove pupils’ ‘progress’ and devalues the fact that a relational construct is only as useful as the quality of content knowledge. This is a pattern repeated in mark schemes from KS2 to undergraduate levels – pupils are expected to see relationships and synthesise ideas at every stage of education – the difference is how much we know and how complex this knowledge is. The problem  Bloom’s, SOLO and all these sort of things is that they implicitly marginalise the role of knowledge in thinking and understanding. Viewing analysis as the tip of the iceberg is more useful in that it’s much more honest to suggest that analysis will always depends on the quality of what is known.

42 Responses to It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know!

  1. Danny says:

    Maybe. SOLO at least explains what comes first in the minds of teachers. It saves being skipped altogether.

  2. John M says:

    Point taken but the quality of what you know depends on how well you understand it. Which then depends on, can you analyse it , link it to other knowledge you have and so on, during the process of learning that new knowledge.

  3. […] lesson is two things. Firstly, the importance of something David Didau has blogged about tonight here and Joe Kirby has blogged about today here, which is of not rushing to scale Blooms’ Taxonomy […]

  4. […] via It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  5. Debaser says:

    I can’t help thinking that there is a false dichotomy here.

    A student who can analyse the relationship between symbols and themes in ‘Of Mice and Men’ has a deeper knowledge of the text than a student who can merely explain the ways in which some of the characters are lonely.

    Surely knowledge and skills are two sides of the same coin. You need skills like analysis and evaluation to access deeper knowledge of a subject. By the same token, as you say, analysis which is divorced from a degree of specific contextual knowledge is always going to be shallower. I suppose that’s why as an English teacher, I have slightly higher expectations when my students are writing an essay about poems they ‘know’ rather than poems which are ‘unseen’.

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right – Joe Kirby talks about skills and knowledge being a double helix of interconnected and inseparable strands. But my beef is that all too often the role of knowledge is marginalised with people saying, oh of course knowledge is important and then acting as if it isn’t. The ‘skills’ of analysis and evaluation are merely expressions of what we know.

  6. johntomsett says:

    As the one “who should know better” I couldn’t agree more with David. How can you analyse sonnets, then write your own, without knowing about Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, et al. And then exploring Wyatt is exciting, then Douglas Dunn, Browning, Owen, Shelley, Heaney…the list goes on. Why move beyond the knowledge of the content at a pace when the content is so rich? Once you have all this knowledge, you can then analyse and evaluate with much more perception. Is, for instance, Long Distance II by Tony Harrison a sonnet? What structural features does it share with a sonnet? Much easier to analyse and evaluate if you have a deep knowledge of the sonnet tradition and its most sublime practitioners.

    Long Distance II

    Though my mother was already two years dead
    Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
    put hot water bottles her side of the bed
    and still went to renew her transport pass.

    You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
    He’d put you off an hour to give him time
    to clear away her things and look alone
    as though his still raw love were such a crime.

    He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
    though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
    scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
    He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

    I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
    You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
    in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
    and the disconnected number I still call.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi John. You are certainly not the only one who has expressed weariness with the knowledge/skills debate in recent weeks. But you were the straw that broke that particular camel’s back. Et tu Brute? I thought. Not John too!

      And as ever, you’re humility, wisdom and willingness to build upon ideas is both sobering and delightful. Haven’t read that poem in ages: thanks!

  7. Ian Lynch says:

    Before knowledge comes motivation and often that comes from context. There are plenty of examples of people that have excelled in science that got relatively weak scores in exams at school. Prof. Brian Cox I believe got a D in A level maths. Motivation is needed as a precursor to gaining knowledge. A lot is dependent on what people understand by the word knowledge. To many it means learning “facts” like energy is measured in joules. How does this knowledge differ from knowing and understanding conservation of energy and applying that in an unfamiliar context? Exactly how much knowledge of the energy is measured in joules type do we need in order to get to understanding mass energy equivalence in a nuclear reaction? If we spend a lot of time learning a lot of science facts off by heart is there an opportunity cost in doing the stuff that provides deeper insight? When is it time to move from breadth of knowledge in terms of facts to depth of understanding building on the key ones? What is the effect of this on motivation? And if that was not bad enough we then have to cope with the fact that a class full of children will have different motivators, different capacities to learn the facts and different capacities to got from for example formal to abstract cognition.

    The Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education research was one of the few scientifically conducted empirical studies that showed GCSE results could be increased by about a grade, not just in science but in maths and English, by specific interventions based on what we know about cognitive development in children. However, one key point that was never really given enough credit was the motivation needed by teachers and students to break through the barrier to abstract cognition. It is very tough indeed. The other point is that the intervention is maturity related and it is the age at which GCSEs are scheduled that has some bearing on this. At the time CASE was done, to get an A-C grade required abstract thinking so getting more students there more confidently increases the measurement. However, if some of those students were left a year maybe they would have got to that level of cognitive maturity anyway. Girls do better than boys at GCSE possibly simply because they mature earlier. After all boys catch up again by the end of university.

    So I would say its not what you know, its what you are motivated to find out that really matters because without motivation you are not going to know anything beyond the superficial. Unfortunately we all believe what motivates us is going to motivate everyone else and that is one hell of an assumption.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Ian – thanks for taking the time to respond; as you say – much more nuanced than Twitter.

      Motivation and meat-cognition are very interesting topics and I’ve taken the time to write about both in previous posts. You may be interested to peruse these:

      What is meta-cognition and can we teach it?
      Motivation: when the going gets tough, the tough get going

      The questions you ask are interesting but demonstrate a logical flaw in your argument. You ask “If we spend a lot of time learning a lot of science facts off by heart is there an opportunity cost in doing the stuff that provides deeper insight?” This assumes that I (or anyone) thinks that facts should be learned off by heart. Despite rote learning being a very effective way of improving short term performance it has negative effects on motivation, long term retention and transfer across disciplines, and is best avoided. There are a great many ways to learn things other than by rote. It’s deeply annoying, and not a little dishonest, that those who would denigrate the role of knowledge in learning want to attribute this position to its advocates.

      The point I’m trying to make is that ‘understanding’ cannot be be decoupled from knowledge. it is in fact entirely dependent on it. You cannot understand something you don’t know; it’s pointless to even try. You mentioned on Twitter that it would more interesting to discuss the roles of content and procedural knowledge: you’re right, this would be a much more production discussion. I was disappointed that you didn’t take the opportunity here. It seems that you maybe assume that I would want to ignore the role of procedural knowledge. For the record, I don’t. However, I do want to say that procedural knowledge is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the fancy fireworks which make it easy to overlook the enormous depth of content knowledge required to think anything worthwhile.

      So I would say your motivation to find stuff out, while important for individuals, is irrelevant in a discussion about cognition. My point is that it is impossible to think about something you don’t know. Try it. Can you imagine something about which you have no knowledge, without using analogies, comparisons and metaphors based on what you do know? I doubt it. Unless we have a depth and breadth of content knowledge out thinking, regardless of our motivation, will be shallow and paltry.

  8. Ian Lynch says:

    The point I was trying to make is based on the way these words are commonly understood. Recall of facts you know off by heart in exam questions such as “write down the SI unit for measuring energy”, “what was the name of Romeo’s girlfriend”. Or, the name of Romeo’s girlfriend is a) Jemimah, b) Juliet, c) Jane d) Jasmin. If a candidate can’t answer the what is but can get it from the m/c what knowledge do they have? Is one type more important than the other? If I then ask the candidate about the relationship between Romeo and his partner but they can’t remember her name is that important? Understanding concepts around facts does not necessarily require verbatim recall of the fact. Just saying its all knowledge might be true, but it doesn’t really help move the debate anywhere. That is why “people who know better think its boring”.

    You keep coming back to this “its impossible to think about things you don’t know” as if it is some great revelation. Can you play football well without being physically fit? No but there is a lot more to playing football than fitness. Are the most knowledgeable people in the world the most successful? Hardly, otherwise all those university professors in subjects most dependent on content knowledge would be billionaires. You still haven’t really grasped the concept of strawman arguments. It is easy to agree that you can’t think about things that you know nothing about. It simply does not follow that even more time than at present should be devoted to learning content. It might be true but it might not. Hint, very few relationships between variables are linear. I suspect you don’t have a maths background? Where is your evidence? What is the empirical evidence for this?

    I don’t think I mentioned rote learning although there is certainly a place for that in some circumstances. As empirical research on Sesame Street showed, little kids are motivated to rote learn so it is not necessarily a bad thing in itself especially with this age group. That might not be true of teenagers. Context is everything which is why a lot of generalised political statements about education have no real meaning to a rational professional who has studied the way the brain works and how children learn.

    Equally, I think there is just as much danger of “knowledge advocates” denigrating “skills advocates” as there is the other way round. This is a classic case of politics over-riding rationality. We interpret things the way we want to to suit our own political bias and belief systems. The words and the messages they communicate matter. What image does it conjure up in most people’s heads when someone says knowledge is the most important aspect of learning? You already demonstrated that me saying off by heart means rote learning to you when to me it just means you can recall it verbatim and says nothing about how those facts are acquired. It could be that the facts were acquired in a scenario that supported learning them while moving from formal to abstract thinking. These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The interesting question is more about how important that particular fact was in determining learning that is generalisable and transferable because that much more efficient learning. Ask any physicist or mathematician about elegant solutions. It’s the reason for the success of science and technology. Probably previous education systems have not been that successful in that a lot of adults have a problem coping with change outside their “knowledge comfort zone”.

    Rationally we first need to agree that the words mean the same things to everyone. If we define education as knowing stuff then of course it’s a closed argument. Not worth a discussion. To me education is not just knowing stuff, it’s being able to do stuff with that knowledge together with other learnt skills such as controlling a paint brush, motivating other people etc etc. Then I have to say my belief system is that we need more “doers”, people that make things happen rather than more journalists and academics sitting on the sidelines describing what is happening. Note I did not say we need no journalists or academics before another strawman emerges.

    It is about motivation because without it you can forget cognitive development at all. Competence to me trumps knowledge on its own but you do need knowledge to be competent. You need to be able to run to play football but there comes a point where more and more running does not materially help you play football better because other factors become more important limits. If you studied biology you will know about limiting factors. I could learn more and more obscure facts about physics, it would not necessarily make me a better research physicist. What matters is which knowledge and for what purpose? Think of a pyramid with content knowledge along the base and sophisticated use of knowledge the height. Is a low broad pyramid better than a tall narrow one? Fact is most adults have forgotten most of the detailed content they learnt at school which is why “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” is attributed to Einstein and a few other very clever and insightful people. They were NOT saying it is not important to learn stuff in school, only that a lot of the specific stuff that is some subject politicians sacred cow is probably arbitrary and transient.

    Learning how to bring knowledge together and see patterns and connections in it will be more important once a threshold of knowledge is gained and appropriate cognition is reached. Unfortunately for individuals this varies with age and maturity rate which is why age related high stakes testing is pretty dangerous stuff. Understanding how the brain works and develops together with empirical evidence from classrooms about what really works eg CASE is far better than relying on snake oil and religion.

    • David Didau says:

      Ian, you’ve usefully summarised the entirety of what I’m against. Maybe at some point if the future when I have more time I might spend it refuting each of your points in turn. But until then I recommend reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education as she’s done most of the heavy lifting for me.

      • Ian Lynch says:

        Be my guest. I hope you have the empirical data to back up your case. I’m intrigued to see your arguments in favour of religion and snake oil in preference to scientifically derived evidence. I also challenge you to show where I have said facts prevent understanding, (I even say rote learning has some merit at times) teacher led instruction is passive, the 21st C changes everything (I do believe we have to change in the context of the times, that’s just progress though), you can always look it up (not always but sometimes), we should teach transferable skills (We should teach how to transfer skills and knowledge in balance with a lot of other things which is not the same thing) Projects and activities are the best way to learn, (sometimes they are appropriate, depends on the context but then I suspect you know very little about teaching science and technology) Teaching knowledge is indoctrination – no teaching irrational belief systems is indoctrination ;-)

        I can categorically say I am against:

        1. Teaching beliefs and religion as if they were fact.
        2. Ignoring evidence to further political belief.
        3. Superficial analysis portrayed as stuff of intellectual worth.
        4. Believing that because it motivates you it will motivate everyone else.
        5. Ignoring context and ending up proving 1 + 1 = 8

        That is basically the essence of my last post so make of it what you will.

        • David Didau says:

          I can also say that I’m against the 5 points you outline above. Oddly though the preceding paragraph appears to contain mostly the ‘snake oil and religion’ you profess to oppose and a distinct lack of empirical data.

          • Ian Lynch says:

            The onus is on you to provide the empirical data not me although I have pointed to some, CASE for example most of what I have written is questioning not asserting. You have asserted stuff without any evidence at all. The way scientific method works is you declare a hypothesis, other people question it so you provide the evidence as to why your hypothesis is correct. That’s how science works.

  9. David Didau says:

    Just rereading your previous comment. You said:

    “I also challenge you to show where I have said facts prevent understanding, (I even say rote learning has some merit at times) teacher led instruction is passive, the 21st C changes everything (I do believe we have to change in the context of the times, that’s just progress though), you can always look it up (not always but sometimes), we should teach transferable skills (We should teach how to transfer skills and knowledge in balance with a lot of other things which is not the same thing) Projects and activities are the best way to learn, (sometimes they are appropriate, depends on the context but then I suspect you know very little about teaching science and technology) Teaching knowledge is indoctrination – no teaching irrational belief systems is indoctrination.”

    Are you under the impression that I have claimed that you have said any of these things? DO you actually think any of the above?

  10. Ian Lynch says:

    I have responded to your post.

    “Ian, you’ve usefully summarised the entirety of what I’m against. Maybe at some point if the future when I have more time I might spend it refuting each of your points in turn. But until then I recommend reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education as she’s done most of the heavy lifting for me.”

    This implies you disagree with everything I said in the preceding post. You give a reference to Christodoulou’s 7 myths implying they counter what I was saying. I challenged you to say why? Now it seems you are in denial. It is very unclear what system of logic you are using. Maybe logic isn’t in your knowledge matrix?

    Do I actually think any of the above?

    Last one first. Indoctrination is summed up well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indoctrination. Doesn’t matter what I think, it’s a defined term.
    Should suit your knowledge model to learn it ;-)

    I do think there is sound evidence that rote learning is motivating in some circumstances for young children. I have insufficient evidence for other age groups or generalised contexts.

    I do believe learning has to reflect the current context otherwise why are you doing it?

    Experience of skills transfer is essential to work in my company so as an employer I think it is important. Might be just me but I have heard it from other employers too.

    Experience of planning executing and evaluating projects is essential for anyone who has aspirations to be a professional engineer, technologist, or manager so doing it effectively needs to be learnt, question is at what stage? The best way to learn depends on the individual and the context. It’s unscientific to talk about “best ways to learn” as a generalistion when there is no definitive supporting evidence that there is a generalisable best way.

    Research skills are important for lifelong learning. I have certainly learnt more by doing this personally than I learnt at university (anecdotal so could be just me). I think teaching children how to do this safely, effectively and efficiently is important (my belief system). For my own children I would try to make them self-sufficient using resources that are freely and legally available from the internet. Why? Because learning enough to do this has saved our business a lot of money and has certainly enriched my life.

    Don’t think there is anything inconsistent between this and previous posts.

    • David Didau says:

      Let’s do this!

      “Indoctrination is summed up well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indoctrination. Doesn’t matter what I think, it’s a defined term.
      Should suit your knowledge model to learn it ;-)”
      Yeah, thanks. I know what indoctrination means. I would however suggest that telling people useful facts is not support by the definition you supply. Maybe the problem is in the application of your knowledge – should suit your knowledge model ;)

      I do think there is sound evidence that rote learning is motivating in some circumstances for young children. I have insufficient evidence for other age groups or generalised contexts. OK, fine.

      I do believe learning has to reflect the current context otherwise why are you doing it? Does learning have to have a point? Can’t we just learn for the sake of learning?

      Experience of skills transfer is essential to work in my company so as an employer I think it is important. Might be just me but I have heard it from other employers too. It may be important, but it’s rarer than you might think. Dan Willingham writes a good summary of the problems here: http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer2007/Crit_Thinking.pdf

      Experience of planning executing and evaluating projects is essential for anyone who has aspirations to be a professional engineer, technologist, or manager so doing it effectively needs to be learnt, question is at what stage? The best way to learn depends on the individual and the context. It’s unscientific to talk about “best ways to learn” as a generalistion when there is no definitive supporting evidence that there is a generalisable best way.
      1) The way in which an expert works is very different to the way a novice works. Experts’ ability to plan, execute and evaluate projects are based on their deep knowledge in specific domains. Learning these skills is relatively straightforward for an expert but almost impossible for a novice because of the problems of cognitive load – I expanded on this in the link on metacognition I posted a few replies ago. Do have a read.
      2) If I have talked about “best ways to learn” I apologise. But I don’t think I did.

      Research skills are important for lifelong learning. I have certainly learnt more by doing this personally than I learnt at university (anecdotal so could be just me). I think teaching children how to do this safely, effectively and efficiently is important (my belief system). For my own children I would try to make them self-sufficient using resources that are freely and legally available from the internet. Why? Because learning enough to do this has saved our business a lot of money and has certainly enriched my life.
      Research ‘skills’ are important. But not as important as related domain specific knowledge. You might find it relatively easy to research pastry but very tricky to research pyschogeography depending on what you know about the two subjects. Teaching children metacognitive strategies IS important. Again I commend you to the link I mention above. The internet is a wonderful resource but its bonkers to believe we can outsource our memories to it. This is a good summary of ‘why we can’t just look it up’: http://special.edschool.virginia.edu/papers/hirsch_liu.html

      Is that any clearer?

  11. Ian Lynch says:

    Btw, a simple puzzle for you that requires no more knowledge than NC L6 number facts. What is the next number in the sequence 1, 1, 1, 1.25, 1.40, ?

    Learning facts is important but not equally important in all subjects, contexts and stages of development. It requires the right balance at the right time taking account of context. Knowing this is what separates professional educators from lay people.

  12. Ian Lynch says:

    Telling people useful facts that are closed and certain is not indoctrination eg a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter = PI. Not encouraging debate in uncertain areas could be. The interesting stuff tends to be the less certain but that’s a different issue.

    Everything has a point even if it is to create emotional feelings of well-being. Like you say you can’t think without knowledge you can’t do anything without a reason even if that reason is some autonomic response. It’s cause and effect. I am willing to concede that not all learning will reflect the current context eg history lessons might not or scifi. but even these are bound to be affected by the present as sure as the present is affected by the past. (And the future if you understand quantum theory :-) ) But if part of education is to prepare children for life I think a very significant part of it needs to reflect contemporary culture.

    I did’t say skills transfer was easy so I don’t think it is that common. It will also be very uncommon if no-one makes any effort to do the difficult stuff. In an innovative start up company you need people with attitudes and abilities that are not common.

    Let’s say my project is to build a PC – no knowledge in that process I couldn’t teach an average 13 year old in a few hours. Doing it efficiently and working with others to source the components, build and test them etc is useful preparation for later life. So I don’t buy what you seem to be saying about non-experts ie children not being able to do this stuff. Technology lessons devoid of actually doing anything real would be like English lessons without books. How do you teach drama without a drama “project”?

    I think you keep creating a competition between knowledge and its methods of acquisition that is unhelpful. They are both important in different ways. You seem to be supplying the fish without telling them how to fish. Good strategy if you want to maintain control of the fish I guess ;-)

    The last bit of what you wrote is telling.

    “The internet is a wonderful resource but its bonkers to believe we can outsource our memories to it.”

    I would never have thought in those terms. I’d have seen it more as an extension of memory and an enabler for making what I commit to memory more selective to increase its value. Do we outsource our memories to maps? Before maps you would have to memorise every journey and would have been much better at it than we are now. Now you can travel a lot further and more varied journeys because we have maps and satnav. You don’t need to spend a lot of time memorising journeys, you can use that time and your memory better. There’s a pretty good computer analogue too. Processors have caches that operate very quickly but have limited space. Information gets taken from slower but much bigger capacity storage as needed. We don’t want stuff in the cache that isn’t being used as it makes the processor a lot less efficient. Wiring the logic in the processor and memory circuitry to optimise the flow and processing of information is what makes a system optimally efficient or not. We are a long way from optimising cognitive efficiency but there is more to it than just memorising a lot of facts and the balance will change with age and maturation.

    So I’m not arguing we don’t need knowledge, my argument is that the type of knowledge needed for children to become educated adults is a complex mixture and over-emphasising any particular type is not very helpful.

    • David Didau says:

      Maybe now we’re getting somewhere.

      1. Skills transfer is hard. But it’s also important. That’s why i’ve written extensively on ways we might attempt it better. See this for an example.

      2. You say that “if part of education is to prepare children for life I think a very significant part of it needs to reflect contemporary culture”. Hmm. I guess this needs unpicking. What do you mean by ‘contemporary culture’? All too often it means stuff that kids already know about. If this is the case we produce less knowledgeable people who are less able to think. Wouldn’t it be more useful to teach them the best of what’s been thought and known so that they have a chance of having their cultural horizons expanded?

      3. I’m more than happy with drama projects (plays), sports projects (matches) and the like. These are opportunities to practise what’s been learned. A technology lesson ‘about’ building PCs is interesting. A ‘project’ which tries to replicate real world problems that experts face usually turn into psuedo-projects where novices don’t really understand what’s going on because no one’s taught them anything useful. If they have taught them something useful, then fine.

      4. Who says I’m creating a competition between knowledge and its methods of acquisition? It that one of those strawmen you’re so keen on?

      5. Didn’t I already say the internet was incredibly useful? But your comment about “just memorising a lot of facts” reveals an anti-knowledge stance that is is your own words “not very helpful”. You’ve already conceded you can’t think without knowledge, and without having learned “a lot of facts” we have no hope of being able to analyse or evaluate (or even recognise!) a lot of what’s on the internet.

      So, although I would argue that some types of knowledge are more useful than others, all knowledge is good.

  13. Ian Lynch says:

    Why do we teach physics in school rather than say electronic, mechanical, civil, chemical, nuclear (Name a few more) engineering. Because the more fundamental stuff is the transferable stuff and it would be impossible to learn all the content associated with all those branches of applied physics. Personally, I don’t have too much trouble transferring skills and knowledge across subjects but I agree it isn’t easy to get to that position and requires motivation and the right attitude to work. So lets have high expectations. I had to drop history to do physics at 14. I wonder if it would be easier for me to go and do a PhD in history or for a history graduate with no physics background to do a PhD in physics? The MSc I did in management was probably less intellectually demanding than A level physics but I did learn a lot of “knowledge” about management (with a fair proportion of pseudoscience). I was told my supervisor wouldn’t understand the maths in the data analysis in my final dissertation. If that had been a MSc in maths I doubt any of the teachers on the course bar two would have had a cat in hells chance of passing. So I think that provides some insight into the value of different types of knowledge and the competence needed to solve problems. Maybe you will agree that developing knowledge and understanding to the point where you can solve unfamiliar problems in unfamiliar contexts is a worthy goal for calling oneself educated. It doesn’t really matter whether we label it “knowledge” “skills” “metacognition” or anything else really.

    By contemporary culture I don’t mean teaching them stuff they already know, I mean using contexts for learning that are real and relevant to them to-day even if they originated in the past. From reducing risk on the internet to knowing how to write formally and informally for different audiences in to-day’s media and to understanding why eg Newtonian Mechanics has limitations in GPS navigation. No intention at all not to teach what has been discovered by great minds in the past but it is likely to have greater impact if it is seen as relevant to-day. Back to motivation.

    So in 3 you are just illustrating that using the term project based learning in a pejorative way is unjustified because there are plenty of examples where such strategies are valid.

    You really need to learn about the nature of strawman arguments. I can only go on what you write.

    “Research ‘skills’ are important. But not as important as related domain specific knowledge.”

    If that is not setting competition between skills and knowledge please explain what you actually meant. I could actually just have said prove it because you can’t. If you think you can you are deluding yourself.

    Seems I hit a bit of a raw nerve with what was intended to be a factual statement. “We are a long way from optimising cognitive efficiency but there is more to it than just memorising a lot of facts and the balance will change with age and maturation.” In the context of the whole statement I doubt any reasonable person would see that as an attack on knowledge, that is quite ridiculous. Note I said more to it than, not that knowledge is not necessary.

    All deductive ability is good too. Had any luck with the maths series?

    Here is another one for you that requires no knowledge beyond being able to tell the time and some experience of walking outside. So pretty well every primary school child should get it right on basic domain specific knowledge. I doubt most would.

    I set off at 8 in the morning and climb a hill getting to the top after travelling 20 km and arriving there at 8 in the evening. I sleep over night and in the morning I break camp and leave at 8 arriving back at the bottom at noon. Is there a time where I was in exactly the same place on the way down at the same time as when I was on the way up? Answer A there is always a time where this is true, B there is never a time where this is true, C it is impossible to determine.

    Yes knowledge is important but so is logical thinking and problem solving and that needs time to practice so there is going to be tension between the time spent doing one and the time spent doing the other unless of course both can be done concurrently eg in science that is learnt in the context of solving problems. Difficult to see how maths has ever been taught without practice at solving problems. Not a coincidence that maths A levels are in high demand. That is why saying all knowledge is good might or might not be true but it doesn’t help decide how and what to teach.

    • David Didau says:

      1) I do have high expectations of transfer. Clearly you’ve not read any of the links I’ve provided.

      2) Good to know.

      3) I haven’t used the term project based learning at all and certainly not pejoratively.

      4) I feel I have ‘proved’ that knowledge is more important than generic research skills. No matter how great your research skills, they’re no use without knowledge of what your researching. Calling this self delusion is just name calling. Can’t you do better than that?

      5) I have no idea at all what you mean by this: “Seems I hit a bit of a raw nerve with what was intended to be a factual statement. “We are a long way from optimising cognitive efficiency but there is more to it than just memorising a lot of facts and the balance will change with age and maturation.” In the context of the whole statement I doubt any reasonable person would see that as an attack on knowledge, that is quite ridiculous. Note I said more to it than, not that knowledge is not necessary.” I certainly don’t see that statement as an attack of knowledge. As you say, that would be ridiculous. And saying you hit a nerve sounds like more tedious point scoring. Do try to rise above it.

      6) I’m just not motivated enough to even read your maths problems. Sorry.

      7) I’m all in favour of practice. Again, this is something I’ve written extensively about. But seeing as you don’t seem to have read any of the other links I’ve provided I won’t bother you with further evidence that you’re preaching to the converted.

      And to sum up, the point I’ve been trying to make (and which you actually seem to agree with) is that thinking is dependent on knowledge. If you think that statement is wrong then say so clearly and desist with the pedantry.

      • Ian Lynch says:

        You say pedantry, I say rigour. If debates are worth having, the use of language is important, relying too much on implicit meaning leads to misleading explicit messages. The statement that thinking depends on knowledge is so obvious as to be uninteresting. The debate I thought we were having was the relative importance of these.

        3. You refered to the work of someone that did as if to condone it.

        4. OK, I’ll explain why you are delusional. Fact, not name calling :-). You think you can prove

        “Research ‘skills’ are important. But not as important as related domain specific knowledge.”

        I’ll demonstrate why you can’t proved this without qualification and remember the onus is on you to prove the claim generally and always or to be cautious and qualify it. It is not for me to do any more than show a single instance where it isn’t true. That is the basis for scientific proof. One instance where special relativity fails shows either the theory is wrong or it is incomplete. So let’s go.

        Give me a subject I know nothing about and ask me to research it. I’ll guarantee I will be able to do that and end up knowing more about it than many individuals who already have some knowledge of the subject but do not have the research skills or motivation to develop that further. I can do that because I have learnt transferable research skills not because I have knowledge in that subject domain. That proves that it is not always the case that knowledge in a domain is more important than research skills. Pretty straightforward logic. I’d go further and make a hypothesis that it becomes increasingly the case the more sophisticated the learning and that is reflected in, for example, the level descriptions for national and international qualifications. (Happens to be something I know a lot about so i guess knowledge is important ;-) ) It’s why I studied physics and mathematics, it places you well to learn just about anything about anything if you are motivated to do it. The internet makes that even easier.

        5. I withdraw any references to raw nerves and apologise. How do you now say you don’t see the statement as an attack on knowledge when you just said the opposite in your previous post? “But your comment about “just memorising a lot of facts” reveals an anti-knowledge stance”.

        6. No need to apologise. So you see how important motivation is to learning? If children aren’t motivated they won’t learn any significantly sophisticated knowledge and will be even less likely to be good at solving difficult problems in unfamiliar circumstances. Motivation is much more interesting than this dry and unending political battle over knowledge vs process. Different people are motivated by different things. I like solving problems in logic you obviously don’t. Be careful not to let your own preferences colour your judgement ;-)

        7. I admit I haven’t read all your references. But then again you didn’t read what I wrote either, not even enough to realise the second problem is nothing to do with maths, its a problem in simple logic. The reference you gave on myths seemed to suggest you had not even read the previous post!

        8. Both the maths series and the climber problem require minimal knowledge to solve. I’d say being able to solve these types of problems is just AS important as knowing subject domain content and requires little of it. It’s not an either or, it’s a both but the tie-breaker in terms of innovation and progressing the human race is being able to know the same as everyone else but then do something radically different and better. That requires space to develop the attitudes and tenacity to wrestle with difficult problems. The reason I have given you these problems is that they provide more evidence that over-reliance on traditional subject domain content is likely to be as damaging as ignoring it altogether. If I am preaching to the converted, then great. I can only go on what you have written in these exchanges so I’m assuming it is typically representative of your other writing. If it isn’t then it might help to make it more so.

        • David Didau says:

          “You referred to the work of someone that did as if to condone it.” What does this mean?

          As far as I can see, you’ve only served to prove that knowledge is fundamentally important to learning. You say you’re really good at learning cos you know loads. Er… yeah!

          Saying “just memorising a lot of facts” shows an attempt to marginalise and trivialise the role of knowledge. That is all.

          As I keep repeating, yes I know motivation is important. Why do you keep pretending that I don’t think this?

          And finally, if the statement that ‘thinking depends on knowledge’ is so obvious as to be uninteresting, why on earth are you contesting it? Your refutation seems to be, ‘yes but, what kind of knowledge?’ That seems a bit pointless.

          • Ian Lynch says:

            Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education – In the context, I’d say the myth about project work is similar to your accusations of anti-knowledge.

            You didn’t say fundamentally important to learning, you said more important than. There is a real difference. This is why “pedantry” is needed. The meanings of words is important in conveying explicit messages otherwise the analysis lack rigour and remains superficial. I’m really good at learning because of some specific things I know how to do that is not the same as just knowing loads. From an education point of view what you know *is* important and the whole point of debates like this is to try and get better insight into what the balance should be not fighting particular hobby horses.

            Again you are quoting out of context to suit a political purpose but when I did the same thing with regard to project based approaches you objected. Even if you don’t intend it, you are coming across as biased and lacking objectivity.

            I’m not and never have contested that thinking depends on knowledge but I think what kind of knowledge and indeed what you intend the word knowledge to mean to the reader really is important. I still haven’t worked out whether you really mean subject domain content when you say knowledge or that you are defining knowledge as everything that goes on in a person’s brain. If I’m not sure about this after all this detail, I’m sure other people that read your posts will not be either.

          • David Didau says:

            Have you read 7 Myths then? Can you refute Daisy’s points about project work (which I think can be distinct from PBL.)

            I have NEVER said that knowledge was more important than learning. That would be idiocy. Knowledge is inseparable from learning. You really have touched a nerve in saying that; it’s offensive to imply that anyone could hold such an idiotic opinion.

            Not sure how I’ve quoted out of context. Seemed pretty contextualised to me. Whereas as your ‘quote; about project work wasn’t a quote but a convoluted inference.

            I completely agree that “what kind of knowledge and indeed what you intend the word knowledge to mean to the reader really is important” I think we need to privilege subject domain knowledge because it’s so very useful in enriching cultural capital and is, largely, not stuff that children come upon in the ordinary run of things.

            You seem to have a knack for deliberately misunderstanding ideas that other people seem to find straightforward. One might say that this is an attempt to obfuscate something quite straightforward. But of course, I’m sure that’s my fault.

          • David Didau says:

            Have you read 7 Myths then? Can you refute Daisy’s points about project work (which I think can be distinct from PBL.)

            I have NEVER said that knowledge was more important than learning. That would be idiocy. Knowledge is inseparable from learning. You really have touched a nerve in saying that; it’s offensive to imply that anyone could hold such an idiotic opinion.

            Not sure how I’ve quoted out of context. Seemed pretty contextualised to me. Whereas as your ‘quote; about project work wasn’t a quote but a convoluted inference.

            I completely agree that “what kind of knowledge and indeed what you intend the word knowledge to mean to the reader really is important” I think we need to privilege subject domain knowledge because it’s so very useful in enriching cultural capital and is, largely, not stuff that children come upon in the ordinary run of things.

            You seem to have a knack for deliberately misunderstanding ideas that other people seem to find straightforward. One might say that this is an attempt to obfuscate something quite straightforward. But of course, I’m sure that’s my fault.

  14. Ian Lynch says:

    Just thinking about all knowledge being “good”. Is it? Or at least whether it is good or not can depend on the context. eg Knowledge of how to construct a nuclear weapon in the context of terrorists might not be so good. Knowledge that compromised the safety of children, eg how to get drugs or use the internet incognito might not be “good”. It also assumes all knowledge is accurate and independent of other knowledge. So is knowledge that homeopathy sometimes gets positive results “good” in the absence of knowledge that the only positive results ever demonstrated could also be achieved with a placebo?

    So as with all these statements it rather depends on the underlying intent for the semantics as much as the semantics themselves.

    • David Didau says:

      Good grief! I can’t believe you’re arguing the toss over my use of ‘good’. Isn’t this akin to the argument that guns don’t kill, people do?

      • Ian Lynch says:

        You seem never to focus on any one element of this. The point about the 7 myths was that *you* cited it in a *context* implying you disagreed with everything I wrote in the previous post. I was saying most of what I said was in keeping with that work but I made a couple of comments to clarify where there could be conceived conflict. You were the one saying you were going to refute every point. You didn’t do that so it seems a bit confusing as to what you actually think.

        Loose use of language causes ambiguities – I’m wondering whether this is deliberate or accidental? So there is no ambiguity I have quoted you precisely.

        “Research ‘skills’ are important. But not as important as related domain specific knowledge.”

        I proved that statement is wrong in at least some instances so you then change the emphasis to something that is similar but not at all what the thrust of the proof was about.

        “As far as I can see, you’ve only served to prove that knowledge is fundamentally important to learning.”

        The proof took a scenario for researching something where there was no prior knowledge of the subject, only generic research skills. So apart from the knowledge associated with the generic research skills there was no knowledge base yet the subject knowledge could be acquired. That is the analysis. The knowledge base for acquiring the knowledge is generic research skills that most people would not classify as “knowledge”.

        So the question is, are we classifying everything as knowledge? No distinction between learning facts about things and knowing how to use those facts in creative ways? My fundamental problem with your thesis, or perhaps your communication of it, is that it gives the impression that subject areas like science and maths are mainly about learning taxonomies and developing the thinking to solve difficult problems is a poor relation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m still not clear what you think about 7 Myths. Are you saying you agree with it except for the bit about projects?

          We agreed earlier (I thought) that both content and procedural knowledge were important. Are we now disagreeing about this?

          My thesis is that subject areas like science and maths are mainly NOT about learning taxonomies. Knowledge of these subjects (and every other) are the building blocks of thought. Solving difficult problems is entirely dependent on the quality of what you know. Creative thinking, for instance, isn’t directly transferable between domains because you need to know stuff in order to apply it creatively. Otherwise we just get people thinking up crazy things like giant foam paperclips.

          And let’s just consider this again:
          “The proof took a scenario for researching something where there was no prior knowledge of the subject, only generic research skills. So apart from the knowledge associated with the generic research skills there was no knowledge base yet the subject knowledge could be acquired. That is the analysis. The knowledge base for acquiring the knowledge is generic research skills that most people would not classify as “knowledge”.”

          You have to know so much about so many things for these ‘transferable’ research skills to be useful. Your claim was that you could learn anything by researching it but all that really means is that you have the means for acquiring knowledge. It’s a bit like saying that an infinite number of monkeys with infinite time could produce the works of Shakespeare and than saying that the monkey was as important as Shakespeare’s works.

          • ian lynch says:

            Interesting you link research competence with many monkeys and knowledge of content as something a lot higher. I’d say most of the world thinks its the other way round. Read the general level descriptions for national qualifications frameworks. Of course the established body of knowledge might be wrong …… I don’t think that is likely.

          • David Didau says:

            When you say ‘general level descriptions for national qualifications frameworks’ do ypu meam the same ones I referred to in the original post? Seems a long time ago now :)

  15. […] I’m fed up of people who should know better saying they’re bored with the false dichotomy of skills versus knowledge.  […]

  16. Ian Lynch says:

    https://theingots.orgs/community/QCF_levels – These are the first levels in the Qualifications and Credit Framework Referenced to the European Qualifications Framework. Goes up to L8 which is PhD. It’s the biggest system of qualifications in the world. Other smaller systems show similar characteristics.

  17. […] we are learning is important.  The way in which bloggers, notably David Didau on the power of knowledge and methods of retention and Joe Kirby on memory, have built upon the foundations laid by Daniel […]

  18. […] found this blogpost from The Learning Spy extremely interesting because it talks about the importance of knowledge. It […]

  19. […] It’s not what you know…oh hang on, it IS what you know […]

  20. […] 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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