The politics of knowledge

Did you heard the one about the tax accountant who walked into a history classroom? No? Well, don’t worry, its not very funny anyway.

We’re told now that we shouldn’t be concerned about the changes being made to the national curriculum because the guy whose work they are based on is actually a lefty and not some right wing nut-job. Well, thats ok then isn’t it. If you decide the merits of a policy based on the politics of the person upon whose work the policy is based, then you can probably put your posters and your marching boots away now. Me, I’m just a little bit more discerning than that.

I’m just going to have to waste a couple of paragraphs stating the bleeding obvious. Apologies if you know this stuff, but I can’t not say it.

Two things. Firstly, if you think that all we need to do is teach young people facts then you are bonkers. Secondly, if you think that all we need to do is teach young people skills then you are bonkers. Simply put, if you don’t understand that learning, that is acquiring knowledge, requires a student to have an appropriate mix of both then you probably shouldn’t be teaching. Again, simply put, I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t understand that. There are legitimate disagreements about the classification of things into the facts, skills and knowledge boxes. For example, do you describe mathematics theorems as facts, as knowledge, or, when they are used, do they come under the heading of skills?

So you know where I am coming from here (for what it is worth) is my way of classifying. You will note above that I added in a third category, ‘facts’. Who was Queen, and when, is a fact. Which river runs through which city is a fact. The equation used to work out the length of the third side of a right-angled triangle is a fact. Facts are things that can be acquired passively. And often having the fact in of itself provides you with no capability, other than to regurgitate it.

Acquiring a skill is something that (usually) requires active participation on the part of the student. A student may know Pythagoras’ Theorem, but unless they have used it, and seen how it works, they are unlikely to have mastered its use. At the other end of the scale I know, for example, that playing golf requires me to hold the club by the handle and swing backwards then forwards to hit the ball which drives it towards the hole. I know about slice, draw and spin. I know enough about ballistics and aerodynamics to understand how the ball will fly. And on the Wii I am very good at golf. But put me on a golf course with a real club and ball and without the active participation in using all these facts to gain the skill I won’t be any good at it. The converse of this of course is, and I may be wrong here, but I doubt that Ian Poulter actually knows very much about ballistics and aerodynamics, other than what he has picked up through seeing it in action as he gathered his golfing skills.

What is knowledge then? The knowledge you have is the sum of the facts you know and the skills that you have to use them. Don’t take my word for it. This is the dictionary definition of knowledge:

facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject

So here’s my point about the politics of it all. There is nothing political about the idea that we need young learners to acquire knowledge. The political act is to try to hijack the use of the word knowledge when what is actually being talked about are facts. A list of content that has to be learnt is not knowledge, it is a list of facts. It is political because knowledge is a powerful word. We all want our children to be knowledgable. Calling a curriculum the Core Facts Curriculum is different to, and to my mind less attractive than, calling it the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

There is a second political point to this as well. What is the list of core content? Realistically, can we agree what that is and keep it down to sensible sized list. I know, largely, what would be on my list and I know for a fact that it would be different to that of others. If it is a common core then there has to be a process involved whereby we get to an agreed “common”. I see no evidence that there is such a process, which makes it prone to partiality, and therefore becomes political. It is said that when passing a law you should worry not so much how you would use it but how your worst enemy might do so. I know that any common core I devised would be entirely for the good of the country. Any deficiencies would not be maliciously intended. I would be less certain that was the case if, say, David Irvine or Nick Griffin devised it.

And here’s the educational point of it. If you define the list of facts that are to be learnt then it is inevitable that you will also end up defining the assessment methodology. Once you have defined the content and the assessment methodology you have restricted the pedagogical approaches teachers can take. In effect, you control teaching. You also start to affect individual outcomes. Children with poor recall but great insight will do less well. Others would be affected positively, but to to pretend it is all good is mendacious.

If you agree that a fact based curriculum is the way to go, it doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. It is a legitimate position to take, given the little we actually know for certain about how learning occurs. It is not legitimate, for those very same reasons, to imply bad faith (which at the political level is certainly happening) on the part of those who don’t agree with it.

You can’t have knowledge without facts. You can’t have knowledge without skills. There is an argument to be had about the balance between facts and skills in schools. It is an argument that has to take place subject by subject though, not on the level of politicians who only seem to understand binary problems. Too much of this argument is being carried out in secret for it not to become political, and consequently, divisive.  Which is the exact opposite of the purpose of education.

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