Friday, 4 November 2016

Why what you teach matters

Knowledge and human power are synonymous.

Francis Bacon

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that within the next two years Ofsted will stop grading the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as part of their overall judgement on schools’ effectiveness. This will probably be replaced with a judgement on a school’s curriculum and assessment policies and practices. If I’m right, how a teacher teaches will become less and less important, instead, schools will be increasingly held to account for what they teach.

Even if I’m wrong, I think it’s still very important to think carefully about what we teach. Judgements on how teachers teach are primarily  concerned with whether children are learning. As Ofsted have recognised in the last few years,  judging learning in lessons is a practical impossibility. I’ve made the point on numerous occasions that although we know it happens, learning is not something you can see.

I’ve also suggested previously that looking for learning is trivially low bar. Here’s a brief summary of this ideas in this post:

  • Learning is never neutral – students are always learning something although not necessarily what teachers want or expect them to learn.
  • Learning is an evolutionary adaptation – if we found learning hard, we would have survived the process of natural selection. Learning new things is something we have evolved to find quite easy.
  • Learning some things is harder than learning others – just because we find it easy to learn the rules of social groups and the likely behaviours of organic and inanimate objects this does not mean we find it easy to learn everything. Abstractions are hard for us to learn and to be successful in an academic setting, you need to understand abstract concepts.

Whether or not students are learning is, largely, irrelevant. The important question to ask is, what are they learning?

There are, I reckon, three main reasons why what we teach matters. These are reasons are cognitive, socio-cultural and economic.

Probably the most important reason for teaching a knowledge rich curriculum is the effects it has on cognition. The most important individual difference between students is the quantity and quality of their prior knowledge; the more you know, the better you can think. It’s self-evident that no one can think about what they don’t know. This argument is sometimes dismissed by those who suggest that teaching knowledge about the world in the 21st century is unnecessary because we can easily look everything we need to know up on the internet. Persuasive as this argument can seem, it ignores the fact that background knowledge – stuff we’re not consciously aware of thinking about – is what we think with.* Our minds are full of different kinds of knowledge and it’s what we know that, as much as anything else, makes us who we are. Our ability to think, reason, problem-solve, create and collaborate all entirely dependent on what we know. In order to think we have to have something to both think with and about. If a curriculum is not full of useful, powerful and interesting stuff then we’ll struggle to be useful, powerful or interesting.

This leads us to the second, socio-cultural reason why we should teach a knowledge rich curriculum. If some people know something and others don’t, those who don’t will find themselves excluded or marginalised from the group who does. If, as is the case in every society human beings have ever developed, those in the more knowledgable group have more power and influence, those excluded from this group find themselves on the fringes of society. Whether we like it or not, the powerful routinely decide that what they value is a marker of access into the elite. If the children of the elite are given access to this powerful cultural pool of knowledge, then they will perpetuate the divisions and inequalities between the haves and the have nots. But, if the children of those on the margins are taught the same stuff as the wealthy and powerful, then they can gain access to opportunities and possibilities denied to their parents. When we express our indignation that some knowledge is valued over other knowledge and decide to teach this ‘other’ knowledge in the name of liberty and social justice we actually deny our students choice. Much better to teach what’s valued by the elite and then learn to critique it. After all,  you can’t really criticise something you don’t know. Ignorance benefits no one.

The last of my reasons in support of a knowledge rich curriculum is an economic one. It’s very useful to consider teaching as a form of economic problem: how can we maximise outputs from a finite set of inputs?  We have a strictly finite number of hours with students so we have to make choices. It might be nice to ‘do a bit of both’ and give curriculum time to generic problem-solving or creativity but this would be time we could not then spend developing students’ understanding of academic subjects. This is what economists call an ‘opportunity cost’. I’ve argued before that so-called ’21st century skills’ are in fact the kinds of things we’ve always known about and have evolved to learn naturally. There might be some benefit to doing a spot of collaborative work in the hope it makes students better able to collaborate with colleagues in a career they might begin several years down the line, but not much. If however we spend our finite resources giving students more to think about and lots of practice of thinking about these things, then we’re more likely to end up with students who can collaborate on something useful and solve problems that are difficult to solve.

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