Giving knowledge a bad name
28 February 2017
Knowledge is under assault in the educational world. It seems that the pursuit and acquisition of a body of learning for its own sake is being attacked from a number of directions.
As we might expect, one of the forces perceived as undermining the credibility of knowledge in our schools is Government. This is a slightly ironic but nonetheless important argument. Recent changes to GCSE and A Level examinations have significantly increased subject content and also created a greater reliance on students ability to retain and recall information than previously. On the face of it, requiring students to know more in order to pass examinations seems like a good thing. Critics of these moves argue however that the emphasis on greater content has been at the expense of the thinking and problem solving skills necessary for young people to succeed in the modern world. The argument proceeds that remembering things is now actually less important than ever (more on this below) whilst the ability to reflect upon, analyse and act upon information is increasingly more important in the world of post modernism and fake news.
Ever since Wren opened we have adopted the Building Learning Power (BLP) approach to teaching and learning. BLP focuses on developing students' learning capacity through activities which develop active learning habits in and out of lessons. I am thoroughly committed to BLP which I think has played a major part in the school's success. I am not however a fan of the view held by some BLP advocates that developing effective learning habits is more important that acquiring knowledge and passing examinations. In this purist view, the learning skills developed by young people through the BLP programme are an end in themselves. To me, without applying them in the pursuit of academic progress, we are not making best use of the skills our students are developing.
A broader argument made by some in the educational community centres around the increasingly easy availability of knowledge. The internet makes it simpler for us to find things out quickly whenever we need to. Some members of the scientific community believe that within a couple of decades we will be able to routinely plant selected bodies of knowledge into people's brains, thus bypassing the need to learn and remember things at all. If this is the future for our young people then, so the argument goes, our focus should be on developing the skills we need to effectively use information because the knowledge will take care of itself.
I am somewhat concerned at all of these assaults on the value of knowledge. Knowing things is good, it gives young people confidence and stimulates the curiosity to learn more. Knowledge gives children understanding and helps them to appreciate context. Because they already know things, they are able to ask more intelligent questions. I could go on, knowledge is frequently impressive in social situations, knowledge acquisition is often a factor in developing vocabulary.
I am wary of an 'either - or' approach to learning. Our children need, and have always needed, sophisticated learning skills if they are to thrive in the complex society around them. I do not foresee a time however where a sound body of specialist and general knowledge to sit alongside these skills will not be an asset too.
Posted at 08:32 on 28 Feb 2017