I was party to a fascinating discussion with colleagues from the RSA yesterday about the nature of education: asking the basic question – what’s the point of school? Catalysed by the change in UK government, there seems to be a battle between the idea of school being a place for ‘transferring a body of knowledge’ and education as an ‘interactive process of developing skills.’ Proponents of ‘traditional methods’ cite the high academic achievements of Singapore and alike as demonstration of the strengths of rote-learning. Ken Robinson and others argue we need a paradigm shift in education; that the existing system of industrial education (based on deductive reasoning and a knowledge of the classics) is ill-suited to the needs of the twenty-first century.
Knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless.
Personally, I think that’s a false dichotomy: knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless. For me, they are both essential elements of learning. Still, something is clearly going awry with the current system. Very few people seem to be happy with the outcomes of a childhood spent in formal education – employers claim graduates, let alone school leavers, lack core competencies and the population generally appears to believe that learning stops at the school gate.
Although most people’s experience of schools seems positive during their primary years (5-ish to 11) for many, secondary education doesn’t just strip fun and satisfaction from learning but sucks the very life out of it. I suspect that, because of the curse of competitive league tables, young people are being taught to pass exams rather than think. The deficit model of highlighting what isn’t known removes the possibility that learning could be enlightening and rewarding in any other way than acquiring a paper certificate.
School is where we’re taught what we can’t do
There’s clearly a need to have a standardised measure of ability to help identify strengths and weaknesses. However, I think that as a society we are suffering the consequences of School, and the exam-system foisted upon it, being the place where we’re taught what we can’t do.
Maybe initiatives like the RSA’s Opening Minds which place competencies at the centre of curriculum and help smooth the transition from primary (theme-based) to secondary (subject-based) education are part of the answer. At least as crucial as bridging the transition between Year 6 and Year 7 is a change in attitude that dissolves the boundaries of learning and dismantles the idea that learning is confined to formal education environments. One might argue that the key to a satisfying life (and all the wellbeing and economic benefits that that creates) is the development of a mentality that embraces constant and continual learning; that school’s greatest legacy, therefore, is providing us with the ability to think for ourselves.
A few months ago I wrote of the growing belief among young people that Google removes the need to know anything. However, it seems that the pursuit of knowledge seems to be on the rise in two very different quarters.
Micheal Gove, the UK Education Secretary, in his recently announced review of the National Curriculum, has reiterated his long-standing commitment to “essential knowledge,” that is names, facts and figures that create a “connected narrative” in traditional subjects such as History.
In the technology world, two high profile recent initiatives make access to contextualised knowledge even easier. Qwiki is still in alpha but already it is a remarkable new way of presenting content. It describes itself as “working to deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search” – it turns information into an experience. Of course it is something that good teachers have always done but what makes Qwiki so interesting and exciting is that it integrates and packages disparate web content on fly. Look up “Sheffield” as I did for example and it returns a narrated slideshow that outlines the history and culture of the city. Every scene offers more depth and related material. It is pretty impressive stuff.
Quora is a social network for questions rather than an aggregator. It creates an organic conversation between community members in response to posted queries. It is a great way to gather opinion (although credibility and trustworthiness are entirely dependent on community votes). It is fascinating to see the expertise the dialogue draws in and the access it offers to contemporary thinkers and personalities (I saw interesting response by Dustin Moskovitz to the film Social Network). Both of these sites make information more accessible.
simply knowing stuff doesn’t make us better thinkers
However, simply knowing stuff doesn’t make us better thinkers, more creative or able to solve new problems. But I am intrigued by the possibilities offered by the unparalleled access to information we now enjoy. I sympathise with idea that we should be armed with core knowledge because I believe it makes it easier to progress to and develop the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Without an initimate grasp of the Fundamentals, it is harder to make unlooked for connections. At the same time, it would be a real mistake if we confused knowledge of facts and figures with creativity or initative.
I hope we don’t see this renewed interest in information as the Be All and End All – it could be the start of something much much more interesting.
I recently saw this on Facebook:
Written by Matthew, an 11 year old boy. He’s not being ironic. It’s an attitude that is permeating society, particularly among the young.
In a sense I think Matthew is right. We’ve never had access to such large amounts of information before so the majority of school activity suddenly feels redundant. Knowledge is almost universally available through our web-enabled mobile devices so what’s the point in trying to remember it?. If Francis Bacon was correct with his idea that “Knowledge is power”, we’re now all incredibly powerful. Except of course that businesses continue to complain that even the most accomplished students don’t have the core skills to operate effectively in the Information Age or indeed, think for themselves. It’s a sentiment described by a 2008 (pdf) report by the British Library and reiterated in this week’s publication by Northwest University (pdf). Both pieces of research draw the same conclusion – though confident, young people are not discriminating in their use of information searching – they tend to trust and use the first results that come back through Google without prejudice. Trusting Google uncritically is making us lazy and vulnerable to manipulated misinformation.
The Google-isation of human knowledge and expression is not a bad thing but there are some challenges before it achieves its full potential to empower. Knowing facts and figures is the lowest level of cognitive ability – important but not the be-all-and-end-all as some commentators would have us believe. If we’re really going to make the most of this ubiquitous library, we’ll have to start placing more emphasis on the mental skills needed to manipulate, make sense of and evaluate this wealth of information. This is where Google is a massive enabler: it frees us from the need to learn simple data and offers us the chance to concentrate on doing something useful with it instead, it releases us from merely exercising our memories to actually think.