Give Them the Facts

The education system's emphasis on skills and "learning to learn" denies the truth that acquiring knowledge teaches children to think

Katharine Birbalsingh: “Success in anything requires knowledge.” 

Imagine you visit your child’s school one day and observe a lesson. You might expect to listen to the story of the battle of Hastings, review the formation of clouds, or once again put your hand in Pip’s and take a stroll through Victorian London. But instead you find you are observing a lesson where children are “learning to learn”. The lesson starts with the objective that all pupils will be reflecting on their own learning. Then, there is a starter activity that requires the children to brainstorm key learning activities. Away they go — writing, reading, thinking. OK. The main activity consists of writing a “recipe” for the ideal learning experience — in groups. Finally, the plenary sums up what the children have learnt about learning.

Fascinating lesson. Except for one problem: this innovative, ground-breaking, 21st-century “preparing children for the modern world” lesson, contains no learning at all. There is no content, no actual knowledge that the children are writing, reading and thinking about.  ”Learning to Learn” is very real. It is held up as the pinnacle of the skills advocates’ agenda. Learning isn’t about what we learn: knowledge and content. It is about how we learn: skills like analysing, counting, ordering, forming an opinion, empathising and so on.  This brings us to the eye of the current educational storm, where Michael Gove, in trying to reform our education system, has dared to insist on a curriculum specifying the essential knowledge that our children should be taught. Gove’s reform has caused controversy because our state education system has been moving, for a long time, from teaching children “lots of stuff,” to teaching them “skills” instead. This move accelerated greatly under Labour’s recent administration. Of course, neither side of the Skills versus Knowledge debate would ever insist on learning through one side only.  One necessarily involves the other. To learn how to count, one must count something. And to learn one’s numbers, one must involve the skill of counting.  Where then is the bone of contention? It comes with the emphasis. The important thing is not whether children should read Great Expectations, be informed about Victorian London while reading a difficult text, come to form an opinion about working-class living conditions in those days, or compare these conditions to their modern-day counterparts. What matters is that children should learn to read, form an opinion, and compare. And any text will allow them to do this.  In a way, it makes sense in our modern age. Is there any real need to read Dickens, for instance, at a time when the internet allows access to any number of “facts”? There are more relevant contemporary novels to be read, after all, and if one wants to know about Victorian London, one can quickly access such information via a computer. In an age when it is increasingly difficult to get children to behave in lessons, trying to “get the buggers to behave” takes us down the route of teaching all kinds of skills that they will need for the ever-changing, ever-challenging future world of the mid-21st century.  ”If they will not learn the way we teach, then we must teach the way they learn.” So French teachers write texts using the names of the pupils to make French more “relevant” and entertaining. To teach the future tense, teachers write funny passages about some pupils who will be working at McDonalds and others who will be playing for Manchester United. These passages not only meet the objective of learning the future tense: the children enjoy themselves immensely. Anyone from the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Alliance would be very impressed that this teacher had produced “successful learners who enjoy learning, and make progress and achieve”: part of the rationale for the National Curriculum. So where’s the problem? There isn’t any problem really, until you look at some private schools and realise that while our state-school children are “sifting” “organising”, “learning” the phrase “Mark travaillera à McDo” and becoming the most skilled children on the planet, private school children are reading Voltaire’s Candide, travelling around the earth in the process, discovering the world of the Enlightenment, philosophising, and getting into Oxbridge.  What skills advocates don’t seem to understand is that taking in knowledge also teaches one how to think. They imagine a time when children were made blindly to regurgitate facts. But what exam requires children simply to list facts? Are we saying that children in public schools never question nor analyse the knowledge they are taught? In one of our good private schools, one can expect to read a Shakespeare play each year until one finishes studying English as a subject. One would also expect to read at least four or five novels per year, not to mention the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, to name but a few poets whose poems they will learn by heart. But there is a huge army of people out there who believe it their duty to prevent children in the state sector from having the kind of education that the private schools provide.  Many state-school teachers are superb, but as they are judged by standards that value skills over content and are driven by targets and exams, content is inevitably slimmed down. Schools are fully aware that the exam stipulation of “pre-1914 prose”, does not say “novel”. So any clever teacher, facing children who have been taught hardly anything in their school career, will teach Oliver Twist by reading a few pages at the start, include the three pages where Bill Sikes gets killed, then have the children watch the film. The same is done to satisfy the requirement of “showing awareness of ONE Shakespeare play”. The 1996 Baz Luhrmann film Romeo+Juliet (sic), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes is so overused in schools that in their exams, children write about Tybalt carrying a gun, Mercutio driving a car and Romeo and Juliet first seeing each other through a fish tank. Not that such comments would cause these children to fail the GCSE exam. All they need to do is show awareness of the entire play. Wide reading uncovers worlds that would otherwise be closed to a child who never leaves his postcode, and only knows his estate and the local High Street. In life, one cannot meet the same variety of people or have access to the same range of human motivation available in books. In books, one can make connections across class and race, and identify with people who are different from oneself. The more one understands the complex reasons for Hamlet’s behaviour, the greater sympathy one will have for him.  Reading a wide variety of literature increases one’s emotional literacy, which is an essential skill for success.  Inevitably you become a better learner by learning more, for you build on the initial learning experience and “hang” new learning on previously learnt “pegs”. Some of that learning “sticks”, and becomes second nature.  A skilful driver doesn’t consult a manual every time he accelerates. The proficient foreign language speaker doesn’t delve into a dictionary every time he wants to speak. Success in anything requires knowledge, and revisiting that knowledge is not only preferable, but absolutely crucial. Ask any child across the country about their uniform and they will dazzle you with their in-depth knowledge and skill on this topic. Why? Because every year, whether it is in English or Languages or Tutor time, they will write letters explaining why school uniform should be abolished or indeed retained. The skills of forming an opinion, building an argument, constructing sentences, writing with a pen, are cleverly taught through knowledge they already have and naturally think is important. An act of pure genius — until you realise that boring the kids to death by never teaching them any knowledge is precisely what drives them into the comfort of their Xboxes and PlayStations. We don’t necessarily need a massive injection of technology in our schools to make lessons more interesting, as some would argue. We just need to teach our kids something worth learning. The lack of knowledge and emphasis on skills is partly responsible for making our exams easier. Below is an example of one of the easiest exam questions from an O-level Maths paper in 1970:

Now this is an example of one of the easiest exam questions from the Higher GCSE Maths paper in 2010: 

A box contains milk chocolates and dark chocolates only. 

The number of milk chocolates to the number of dark 

chocolates is in the ratio 2:1. There are 24 milk chocolates.

Work out the total number of chocolates.


Need I say more? True, not everyone sat the O-level in 1970. But neither does everyone sit the Higher GCSE papers now. Our Oxbridge candidates at age 16 are spending their time answering questions like this. Rigorous English and Maths have practically evaporated from our schools. As for History, some of our children quite literally have never heard of Winston Churchill, yet do Nazi Germany to death year after year. Of course one of the motivations for moving away from the knowledge-based curriculum was because some of the critics consider knowledge to be right-wing and claim it propagates the assumption that the West is best. But is it not possible to teach children both of Churchill’s victories and failures? Can they not learn about the great disaster of Gallipoli and then use their skills to their hearts’ content in evaluating Churchill’s leadership? Knowledge comes in all shapes and sizes and if some of it was ever problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.  The skills agenda is so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t even question it. For all the good of “teaching people thinking skills”, we seem incapable of being critical of the dogma that is depriving our children, in particular our poorest, of the privilege of basic knowledge: what the skills advocates themselves had in abundance at their own schools when growing up.  
Michael Gove is swinging the pendulum back in the right direction by restoring a voice to knowledge. He is opening doors to a world that should not remain the prerogative of privileged public schools. Finally, Dickens, quadratic equations, Voltaire and Churchill will belong to us all.

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