Skill or knowledge? The flaw in the UK curriculum debate.

As the education debate in the UK hots up opposing factions align themselves behind the banner of their choice.  The prize, a place in the list of subjects to be included in the so called English Baccalaureate.  The rewards, more time for your subject on the curriculum, more funding for your department, extra staff.  The losers, the children of the current generation.

Michael Gove is unequivocal in his determination that a national curriculum should specify what factual knowledge should be taught in state schools while his critics are appalled that the  skills required to function as users e of knowledge are being marginalised.  (Just to be clear, the current national curriculum specifies functional skills in English, maths and IT alongside personal learning and thinking skills; independent enquirers, creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self  managers and effective participants.) The danger is that by polarising the debate in these terms we will forget the really important issues such as, what kind of education will best suit our young people.

Any simplistic description of human experience or thought can only be a useful way of discussing an idea, never an all sufficient model.  For example many schools find it useful to use a visual/auditory/kinaesthetic model of learning, some even tell pupils which type of learner they are which can lead to some interesting conversations.  Of course it is obvious that we all function in all of those ways, depending on the situation, the task in hand, the group we are with and any number of other variables.  It is also the case that ways of learning in each domain can be taught and used by individuals.  What is s less often considered by teachers, though  perhaps it should be,  is that we all have our own teaching style, the real challenge is to teach for everyone.

Equally an argument over the relative importance of skill or knowledge is missing the point.   If at this stage you have not seen “Shift Happens” I suggest you check it out on Youtube.  It might be instructive to try to imagine a pupil who had only been given factual knowledge and another who had only been given skills.  Interesting speculation in a “Gulliver’s Travels” way.  Of course factual knowledge is useful and not just for the pub quiz, but what is the point if all you can do is regurgitate the facts?   We are hearing a lot about knowledge based economies but is would be foolish to think that this was in any way a reference to the kings and queens of England now wouldn’t it?  Ian Gilbert argues the case for learning how to think in his book, “Why Do I Need a Teacher when  I’ve Got Google? “, certainly worth a read if you don’t know it.   The second problem with the debate is that, of course skill is knowledge.  It might be tacit knowledge, especially in the field of design and technology but also in thinking skills.  There are countless volumes in many disciplines that seek to analyse creativity, a mental and physical skill that so defies our understanding that we have often attributed it to divine gift.  Tacit knowledge perhaps but we all agree that we need to unleash the creative ability of our pupils.  In the UK the curriculum area where the skills of creativity are best taught is Design Technology.

There is a problem with the word skill.  The industrial revolution and the rise of mass production made a delusion possible, that skill could be analysed and replicated by machinery.  Of course some skills can be dissected and replicated in this way, some cannot.  The task of mechanising the throwing of a clay pot, possibly the earliest machine skill in human history, has proved stubbornly intransigent until quite recently.  A multi million pound aerospace factory runs because of the skill of one very humble individual, the toolmaker who creates the cutters that shape the metal.   However in common thought skill has been devalued, the image of the skilled worker made redundant because of automation or the transfer of the work to another country is embedded in our popular culture.  (Interesting in this context that the first signs of economic recovery in this country are being shown by the manufacturing sector.) In the arts the idea of skill has been used as the defining characteristic of an academic tradition which was the point of opposition for the art movements of the 20th century; skill becomes old fashioned, physical not intellectual, that which can be done by machine.  (For a fascinating exploration see “The Art of Skill” , Dave Beech in Art Monthly, issue 290). In the context of the current debate skill is knowing how to handle knowledge, ah…so skill is knowledge.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that it is very difficult to quantify skills and governments need to quantify to prove their success.  A cynic might suggest that using the mythic English Baccalaureate figures from this year, before the idea even existed is a calculated attempt to make this proof.  “See how we have improved education, pass rates for the EB have shot up”.  Michael Gove has been pilloried in the education press for his constant references to education systems around the world who outperform the UK, education systems who on closer examination are moving towards the learning and personal skills that our current curriculum espouses. (See William Stewart in TES 28th January) .  On a personal note I recognise that for me learning and thinking are about building a world view; new information and new ideas either fit this emerging framework or change it in some way, if only as they are defined as oppositional to it.  For me learning and thinking are fun, I seek out opportunities for both and I tell my pupils about my discoveries.  That this way of operating is not the same for everyone was brought home to me by a tutor who described my writing as neatly synoptic and compared it with the work of another who he described as brilliant but unpublishable.  Damned with faint praise.

Many of you will know Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.  As Design Technology teachers we might want to question the primacy of evaluation but few would dispute that the order is appropriate.  In a recent discussion with colleagues from a  range of  disciplines we were asked to apply this to our teaching during the week.  Two design Technologists pointed out that they were teaching pupils all of those skills and more significantly expecting children to use them all in almost every lesson.  Other colleagues found it much harder to apply to their work.  There may be epistemological and developmental reasons why this is the case but it became clear that in the process of teaching and learning how to think as a designer we were working at all the levels identified by Bloom with a regularity that is hard to replicate in all subjects.  What a pity that Michael Gove does not posses the appropriate knowledge, perhaps the curriculum he studied was not adequate

Another design and make project by one of our pupils.

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