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Knowledge versus Learning

Knowledge versus Learning

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CaptureLast Thursday I attended the Reform “think tank” event on Schools for the Future that was held at Microsoft’s office in London. The event included 4  panels of speakers discussing topics such as the state of education in the UK, the quality of teachers, raising the bar, and saving money. It was a really interesting group of speakers, ranging from industry representatives, to head teachers, to university researchers, to former Minister for Schools Jim Knight.

There was a keynote during the day from the current Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, on this, the 50th day of the new coalition government. The entire transcript of the Minister’s speech can be found HERE if you’d like to read it.

There was one point of the speech that particularly caught me, and I’d love to know what you, as UK teachers, think of it. Here it is:

On one side of the ideological debate are those who believe that children should learn when they are ready, through child-initiated activities and self-discovery – what Plowden called ‘Finding Out’. It is an ideology that puts the emphasis on the processes of learning rather than on the content of knowledge that needs to be learnt.

The American education academic, E.D. Hirsch, traces this ideology back to the 1920s, to the Teachers College Columbia in New York and the influence of the educationalists, John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick.

Added to that ideology is the notion that there is so much knowledge in the world that it is impossible to teach it all – and very difficult to discern what should be selected to be taught in schools. So, instead, children should be taught how to learn.

I believe very strongly that education is about the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Knowledge is the basic building block for a successful life….What is to be criticised is an education system which has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills.

I’m curious to know where you stand in this debate. Which is it – do we organise our education system around the memorisation of facts and figures and the ability to recall them for national exams? Or do we continue to look at things like learning styles, personalisation of learning, student-centred learning and project-based learning, where “knowledge” can be applied in a real-world context, in a way that motivates and interests learners, and at a pace and style that suits their learning?

(Incidentally – here’s what the Minister has to say about child-centred learning: Again, the ideologically-driven, child-centred approach to education has led to the belief that the mere exposure to books and text, and the repetition of high frequency words, will lead to a child learning to read – as if by osmosis.)

I’d love your comments…



  • "When an old person dies a library burns down" - I think is a paraphrase on an ancient Indian saying.

    With new technologies - starting from the printing press - the need to know / remember / recall is only one small piece of the puzzle.

    There is THAT much information currently available that - in most cases - the person who 'knows it all' is very rare or deluded.

    The more I know - the more I realise I don't know - the intelligent person is astounded by their acknowledged ignorance!

    Here's an example - take a brilliant academic with no technical skills and let him/her watch a really good mechanic take their cat to bits. The look on the academic's face will be pretty close to astounded!

    My point is - you don't need to know it all - you need to know that somewhere there is the answer / an answer and you need to know that you have the confidence to find it, analyse it and use it effectively.

  • Like the 'Nature vs Nuture" debate, I don't believe it is an either/or. I think there needs to be elements of both; with students taught basic skills and knowledge, as well as the ability to think critically and reflect on their own learning. From there, they can (with the right teachers) decide what is most important for their own learning and how they go about reaching their goals. Every job/lifestyle/interest has it's own knowledge, which can be learnt by experience or from experts. What an interesting topic to ponder.

  • Harks back to  policies championed by Rhodes Boyson in the 70's and 80's that perhaps failed to pick up that the world had moved on.

    The benchmark educational systems in Finland and indeed Sweden have a different focus - we'll watch the march of this progress with interest

    and small point but the changing rubric around knowledge and skills can be shaped positively by national standards and assessment systems. Remember the domain of evidence and assessment has moved on too - it does not have to be exam based anymore - the mode of assessment can fit the skill, competence , knowledge that requires to be demonstrated. Just as learning has progressed so too has assessment - national systems  have not worked out how to make the most of the flexibility that is now available.

    Now going to find a technician that can take my cat to bits - providing they can put it back together again - I'll be astounded.

  • Our school is really starting to lean heavily on learning styles with a disdain for standardize test results. But I'm having a hard time swallowing it. Why should we allow the pop psychologist and academics experiment with our children? Was the educational system really that bad before?

  • Thanks for brining these comments to light!

    I think that developing skills in young people is very important.  However, learning skills without any context is almost impossible, and I would say dangerous for learning.  For example, we develop many skills in geography, but they are coupled with interesting geographical content and ideas and are linked to other curriculum areas.

    I don't see the two ideologies as polar opposite. They need to work together if learners are to develop.  In addition, schools need to look to Universities and employers to drive ideology instead of the politicians.

    What also seems to be overlooked in these arguments also it that society needs a wide range of skills and knowledge to work.  The problem with a purely knowledge driven system is that we end up with a conveyor belt approach where everyone looks the same.  Current Year 11 pupils struggle to get in to college, despite having lots of A's as they don't have a broad enough skill set.  On the other hand, if skills are all we focus upon(and I agree with the comment that these are often ill defined) then we end up with learners with no function or direction - what are these skills for? The danger is that each ideology treats all learners the same, without room for manoeuvre.  There is no 'right' way to learn - as long as you learn.

    So, to me I think that the debate is academic, and we need a range of ideologies and approaches to drive education. (as well as a decent amount of time without political interference......) What is more important is that secondary schools take more of a primary approach where the whole curriculum is coordinated.  For example, getting young people to write about their interconnections in world trade while English are teaching factual writing.

  • I would imagine it would be the latter. Of course, that is hard to imagine or gauge, difficult for most to be comfortable with.

  • Interesting post! Here are some random thoughts on the subject: the-web-of-knowledge.blogspot.com/.../random-thoughts-on-knowledge-and.html  

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