In education, 21st century skills, future-focused capabilities, emotional intelligence and ‘soft skills’ are all the rage. The OECD has launched an OECD PISA Global Competence Framework, which will be the basis for the PISA 2018 Global Competence assessment, which seems to indicate that international standardised tests are now intending to measure “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.” In Australia, the Gonski 2.0 report recommends further embedding of and emphasis on the Australia Curriculum General Capabilities—which include critical and creative thinking, ethical and intercultural understanding, and personal and social capability—in order to “equip every child to be a creative, connected and engaged learner in a rapidly changing world.”
While teachers don’t choose between teaching knowledge or teaching skills, there is a continuum along which a teacher might sit in terms of which way they lean in their teaching. While the curriculum provides an anchor, what is favoured when planning and teaching? What comes first in a learning plan: explicit teacher-led instruction or inquiry exploration? What does the assessment task measure and in what ways are students asked to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills? I have written before about my own approach to knowledge and skills in my own English and Literature classrooms.
While there are politics involved (What should students know? Who decides? What knowledge is privileged? What knowledges are marginalised or excluded?), it should be obvious to state that knowledge is crucial in education. Knowing stuff is absolutely fundamental for teachers and for students. Teachers know their stuff and are both subject knowledge experts, and experts in teaching and learning. Students need to learn, apply, revisit and revise the stuff. The discipline-specific stuff might be facts, formulae, terminology, texts, concepts, processes, and strategies.
During last week’s CONASTA conference (the Australian Science Teachers’ Association annual conference) Minister for Education Simon Birmingham said in an interview “we know that students will get the best possible opportunity if the teacher in front of them is skilled in and passionate about the scientific subject that they’re teaching. Australian students deserve to have the skilled physicists teaching physics, skilled chemists teaching chemistry, skilled biologists teaching biology and mathematicians teaching maths.”
Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel addressed the conference. In his speech on raising 21st century citizens he noted that “in 2018, there is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation.” He added: “I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and six before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate’.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.’” This alludes to cognitive load theory; we need plenty of knowledge in our long-term memory so that when we come to thinking, creating, or collaborating, we are able to use our short-term memories to do thinking, solving or creating.
In his new book, Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), Dylan Wiliam notes that skills are discipline-specific, rather than transferable. He challenges whether some so-called skills are skills at all. He writes that “the big mistake we have made in the United States, and indeed in many other countries, is to assume that if we want students to think, then our curriculum should give students lots of practice in thinking. This is a mistake because what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways” (p.134). He adds that “the only way to make humans more capable in their thinking is to expand the store of things that they have to think with—in other words, to have more knowledge in long-term memory” (p.155).
An example of discipline-specific knowledge as inextricable from critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication is the PhD. A major criteria of a PhD is to make an original contribution to knowledge. This means thinking critically to design appropriate research questions; synthesising and analysing literature; designing and applying a systematic research method; drawing together results and findings; and discussing what it is that these contribute to the body of knowledge that currently exists. There is both critical thinking and creativity in this process. It is impossible to argue for an original contribution to knowledge if you do not yet know the existing knowledge base. In the PhD there is collaboration and communication with participants and supervisors; and the all-important communication with the reader. There is a lot of knowledge at work here: knowledge of the field of research, knowledge of your own research and how it fits into and adds to the field, knowledge of the appropriate language to use for various audiences and modes of communication.
A more mundane example might be cake-baking. This week, I baked and iced a bowling ball cake at the request of my son, for his bowling alley party. The task actually took plenty of knowledge, applied from previous baking successes and failures, and also from my Fine Art background. I had to plan how to make a spherical cake that had structural integrity. It needed to hold together, stand on a cake board, and be transported to the venue intact. I worked to marble and polish the buttercream icing so it looked shiny, as well as to make the holes in the ball.
We often don’t know what we don’t know, and downplaying knowledge leaves us wide open to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which we overestimate our capacities. If we are critical thinkers, we need content about which to think, and theory on which to build. If we are creators, we need to know what has come before in order to know that what we are creating is inventive and not a rehash of what has already been done. If we are innovating, we need to fully understand the problem. We need to know rules before we can bend them, and we need to know content before we can tinker with it or move beyond it.
Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen sang that “everything old is new again.” No matter the education flavour of the month—grit, growth mindset, STEM, coding, virtual reality, flexible seating, mindfulness—knowledge should always be in vogue.