A progressive case for bringing knowledge back in
My reflections on the importance of knowledge began immediately after I started teaching. Within my first week I had heard questions like “Mister, what does it mean the ‘capital’ of New Zealand?” or (as a student was pointing to various punctuation marks) “What do those little dot things mean in writing?” This bothered me. Although I knew there were many possible reasons for these apparent gaps in understanding, I also felt immediately like there was something wrong in the way we were approaching our delivery of the curriculum.
So often, we hear that at the end of the day it is the ‘skills’ we teach our students that really matter. Sure they will learn some content en route to gaining these skills, but the details of this content are less important than training students in the ability to be ‘21st century learners’ - to collaborate, be creative or think critically.
How are ‘21st century learners’ best developed?
Increasingly, this takes the form of learning driven by personalisation and projects. The theory goes that since it is the skills that are really important, letting students select content that is engaging to them is a no-brainer. They will be hooked in by relevant material, and this will allow them an avenue to develop their skill. Any content they don’t pick up in class can naturally be gathered later on via Google.
Of course, there is some truth in this argument. No doubt Google is a powerful tool, and we do want students to be engaged, creative 21st century learners. Yet we need to be cognisant of what research tells us about how ‘21st century learners’ are best developed.
Think of it like a garden trellis
Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Finkel, in a recent address to Australian science teachers, used the metaphor of the “T-shaped learner”. In his words “the vertical line of the T stands for deep expertise in a discipline. You have to acquire that first. The horizontal bar stands for your flexibility to apply that expertise creatively...that comes second. Think of it like a garden trellis. Your subject, or discipline, gives you structure while you grow. Then you have the capacity to branch out.”
Research from cognitive science tells us that in many cases, skills we think of as transferable, like critical thinking or creativity, are actually domain specific. That is, one’s ability to create or critically think in a ‘domain’ such as chemistry or history is dependent upon deep knowledge in that domain - the vertical line of the T. Only once this is mastered can original and inventive work truly occur.
Thinking hard about what students need to know as well as what they need to do
From this point of view, the role of a teacher to develop and train students in specific domain knowledge becomes vitally important. Starting with ‘skill’ is jumping the gun - if we want our students to be truly skilled, we must first insist on deep and rigorous knowledge.
This is not to say we should return to a fully prescribed curriculum based on the memorisation of facts. But it is to ask the question: has the pendulum has swung too far in one direction? How often do our school goals, open-evenings or PD sessions talk about the specific knowledge we want students to hold in their long term memories, as well as the skills we want them to acquire? How often, especially in humanities & social sciences departments, do we lay out explicitly (for staff & students) the specific knowledge students will need to truly succeed in our learning areas?
In my view, we have a duty to provide our ākonga with powerful knowledge as well as 21st century skills - so often indeed, these skills emerge from this knowledge. Google won’t do it all for us. It is our job as educators to think hard about what students need to know as well as what they need to be able to do, and ensure we put this knowledge front and centre in our teaching. It is this that will fully prepare them for further study and for the world beyond.
You can read an extended version of this piece on Taylor’s blog, The Native Hue of Resolution – thoughts on NZ education.