Skills and Knowledge

Posted on 22-12-2011

A very similar post to this was originally published on the Policy First website here.

In modern education, traditional knowledge often gets a bit of a hard time. Critics of knowledge-based curriculums argue that modern technology has eliminated the need for pupils to remember and memorise vast quantities of knowledge. Not only that, but the rate of modern development means that a lot of knowledge will quickly become obsolete. We need to ‘future-proof’ education by teaching transferable skills which can apply in a range of situations, not knowledge which may soon be irrelevant.  You can find countless teachers, educationalists and organisations who all broadly subscribe to this view. I will give examples in a later post but for now, this viewpoint is clearly expressed by a primary head teacher who was recently interviewed here by the Telegraph:

“Why teach them about the Battle of Hastings when they have got Google? For us, it is about teaching them how to learn.”

Unfortunately, as plausible as these arguments sound they aren’t backed up by the facts.  Firstly, the idea that we can outsource memory to the internet is simply not true. In the words of Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has published a book explaining the latest neuroscientific research for an educational audience:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts…critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving…are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.[1]

Skills and knowledge are bound up with each other, and any curriculum which marginalises knowledge is therefore doomed to fail.

Secondly, traditional bodies of knowledge are not nearly as obsolete as the theorists would like us to believe. Of course people make new discoveries all the time, but a lot of those new discoveries don’t disprove or supersede the old ones – in fact, they’re more likely to build on the old discoveries and require intimate knowledge of them. As we know from fashion, it’s the new that dates the soonest.  The wheel was invented in the 4th millennium BC, but it’s set fair to outlast the microfiche, invented in the second millennium AD.  Likewise, the knowledge and inventions from the distant past that have survived to the present day have done so because they are extraordinarily valuable. The Ancient Egyptian alphabet system, the Hindu-Arabic numbering system, Ancient Greek geometry and Renaissance art and literature are all still very relevant to today’s world. These traditional bodies of knowledge represent not only some of the highest peaks of human culture, but the foundations on which any true originality or creativity must build. We fail to teach them at our peril.

[1] Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Our Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, p.28.