Battle of Ideas – In Defence of Subjects

Posted on 12-10-2012

Last night I spoke at the Battle of Ideas on the Defence of Subjects. I spoke in favour of subjects, and my main points were as follows.

Subjects work. They are the most efficient and effective way of ensuring pupils learn. All the best education systems in the world use subjects, and generally what we would term quite traditional subjects. The main alternative to structuring the curriculum through subjects is structuring the curriculum through projects. Many schools in England use projects for some or all of their curriculum time. Examples of such projects are: I am what I am, Time Travelling with the Doctor, In my Liverpool Home, Pressgang, Going Global, Flaming Challenge, the local airport, The Olympics, Worzel Gummidge, The Simpsons, the History of Football, Bullying, Identity and Tribal Religions

At the level of general education, subjects work and projects don’t for the following reasons.

1 – Thinking skills are subject-specific. One of the principles that underpins project based learning is that there are so many similarities between thinking skills in all subjects that it is possible to teach them all together. This assumption is false. You can be good at analysing a historical problem and bad at analysing a mathematical problem. Doing lots of historical analysis will not improve your mathematical analysis. Thinking skills depend on domain knowledge. When you teach through projects, you risk omitting some very important domain knowledge. When you teach through subjects, it is much easier to ensure effective coverage of different domains.

2 – Our working memories are limited. We can only hold a few brand new concepts in our working memory at any one time. This is why maths problems that require several steps are so difficult to do in your head, because you have to work out the answer to one bit, hold the answer to that in your head, work out the second bit and then go back to the first bit and combine it with the second bit. Subjects accept this limitation because they allow us to focus solely on one aspect of knowledge without any distractions. Projects, on the other hand, often contain many distractions which overload working memory.

3 – Pupils aren’t experts. Projects work for adults because adults have had a subject based education and mastered all the relevant subject knowledge they need to make the project meaningful. When we try and do such projects with pupils who don’t have relevant subject knowledge, they will struggle, and often this results in the project becoming a bit of a mockery. For example, an adult professional might do a project on the local airport for work and it will be meaningful. Ask pupils to do a project on the local airport and it will turn into making paper aeroplanes and writing barely-comprehensible poetry about how planes taking off make you feel.

The other speakers were Tim Oates, Alka Seghal-Cuthbert and Martin Johnson. I think there was a great deal of agreement between Tim, Alka and me. I particularly liked Alka’s explanation of subjects as helping us to explain the physical world, the social world, and the subjective world. Tim Oates was very good on how subject categorisations are an arbitrary but effective way to help us to introduce vital and difficult concepts as varied as the conservation of mass and Romantic love. Martin Johnson, on the other hand, argued that traditional subject-knowledge was upper-class. (I will blog about this issue later). I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite follow all of his arguments but he did pretty much seem to be echoing his thoughts in Subject to Change, a pamphlet he wrote about the issue a few years ago. There were lots of interesting questions from the floor. One of the most interesting came from a teacher who asked how you can teach traditional subject-knowledge if teachers themselves don’t have that knowledge. This is a big and profound question. There are certain areas of knowledge which have stopped being taught. As a result, many teachers who haven’t been taught this knowledge cannot of course pass it on to their pupils. And so the problem perpetuates itself and becomes very difficult to fix. The clearest example I have of this is grammatical knowledge. Here the problem is so bad that, as I have blogged before, even the people who are meant to be in charge of English teaching seem unclear what grammar is.

In response to this teacher’s question, Martin Johnson asked her if she’d ever had a pupil tell her something she didn’t know. The teacher replied that she hadn’t. Martin Johnson then said that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers constantly received feedback from its members that their pupils knew things about their subject which they didn’t. In his words ‘you are losing the race with your pupils because they Googled something last night that you don’t know.’ As well as repeating the myth that you can just Google it, Johnson’s argument here is a bit rude about his members. I would love to see evidence of all these ATL members who know less than their pupils. I used to be a member of the ATL, and I joined it because many teachers I admired and respected were members. I know that none of them tend to find that their pupils know more than them, and I think that they would be pretty unhappy at the suggestion that their subject knowledge is so shallow that it is threatened by a Googling pupil.