Skills and Knowledge

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.


10 thoughts on “Skills and Knowledge

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  2. Syd Egan

    I’d be interested to know if the quote from the head teacher is (a) accurate; (b) a genuine reflection of what he actually meant – I suspect the latter, at least, is not the case; and I would guess that what he was really trying to say was this:

    “Why teach them that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, when they have got Google?”

    This raises the more subtle question of micro-facts and macro-facts. Macro facts are clearly important – the political and cultural implications of the French victory.

    However, these macro-facts are difficult to test, so we tend (especially in earlier years) to focus on micro-facts – that the battle took place in 1066 and not 1067 or 1065! It is these micro-facts which might be argued to be irrelevant in the age of Google.

  3. The Wing to Heaven Post author

    Also, one can never know if people are misquoted, of course. But if the primary head really did say ‘Why teach them about the Battle of Hastings when they have got Google?’ then it seems fair to assume that he thinks it isn’t worth teaching kids about the Battle of Hastings – not just the year it took place in, but anything about it.

  4. Kristopher Boulton

    If he only meant ‘Why teach them that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066″, then a few months ago I would have agreed with him.

    Having read the article by Hirsch, and several others now on cognitive science, my opinion has changed. If intelligence is the manifestation of knowledge stored in memory, and the many links and relations we’ve drawn between this knowledge, then we may find ourselves unable to make a connection between what we know of the Battle of Hastings and other events we learn about if we are unaware of the chronology.

    Knowing that it took place in the 11th century is a step up. Knowing it took place in 1066 could be the key that forms a particular link in our mind that leads to new insight, and increased intelligence. I’m not sure we can predict exactly what kind of insight that might be, but we can say for certain that many more options are open if the date is known, than if it is unknown.

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