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On the problem of knowledge – part two: progressivism and the primacy of skills #blogsync

thinking part 2This is the second part of a contribution to the #blogsync Knowledge debate. In my last BLOG I offered a progressive view of knowledge and rejected Govian pedagogy and neo-traditionalism.

Old Andrew sums up the neo-traditionalist view:

To begin with, the question of how we select which knowledge is worth learning changes. While progressives have always challenged the body of knowledge to be learnt (the tradition) on a wide variety of grounds such as political incorrectness, obsolescence, irrelevance and the nature of those making the selection, I’ve never really had much time for these arguments. There is knowledge that is considered the best in our culture. There is knowledge that, in our culture, is undeniably associated with being educated or clever.

Not having much time “for these arguments” is fine but is that, the same as, just not having much of an argument? Regardless the clever / knowledge device is the vehicle Old Andrew uses to escape the epistemic hole that neo-traditionalism has created for itself.

He sums it up here:

My talk of intellectual development may have created a space where people start talking of creativity, deep understanding, critical thinking, higher order thinking, independent thinking, i.e. all the vague terms that progressives use to distinguish their view of the intellect from one that revolves around knowledge. From this point of view, I am simply not traditionalist enough; I lack true faith in the importance of knowledge. My defence, however, would be to ask where would the most extreme anti-instrumentalism actually lead? Could we actually argue that knowledge serves no purpose?

Quite! And that’s the point. If you cannot account for knowledge, if it has no utility then all that is left is an argument that knowledge, as a “thing in itself”, makes you clever. Old Andrew is right; clever is not the same as knowledge. The question is; what is intellectual development? Is it just another word for skills?

The words used by progressives for intellectual development are various and relate to different things: creativity, deep understanding, critical thinking, higher order thinking, independent thinking are words used to describe clever. They are not used instead of the word “knowledge”. What do you have a deep “understanding of”? What are you critically thinking about? The importance of knowledge is implicit to the terms used by progressives.

The difference between knowledge, as a “thing in itself”, and clever is skill. In fact one definition for clever in the Oxford dictionary is “showing skill” and depending upon the dictionary the words are interchangeable:

Showing skill and originality; ingenious: a simple but clever idea for helping people learn computing he taught the dog to perform some very clever tricks

Are we just engaging in semantics. Knowledge is the tool and cleverness equates to the skill of using the tool. Like any tool knowledge has affordances and constraints; both structure and structuring. It isn’t just some “dead thing” from the past that clever people know. The knower acts upon it and it acts upon the knower.

The neo-traditionalist epistemic hole

Old Andrew’s problem is not that he is giving too much ground to progressives rather he is accepting the reality that neo-traditionalists are in a huge epistemic hole of their own making. How do they know what they claim to know? You cannot resolve the problem by simply replacing the word “skill” with the word “clever” and then refuse to account for it. In order to discuss the utility of knowledge you have to have some idea of what it is you are discussing.

In this case what is being discussed is the “how” of knowledge. How do you know what is being claimed has any purpose or otherwise?  I would suggest that each subject has it’s own epistemology; the “how and why” of a subject and not just the “what”. Does an artist think like a scientist? How do you come to know the field of business as opposed to that of Mathematics? Are the meta-cognitive skills in Math the same as that of Art?

That is what has been missing from the progressive agenda. The “how and why” has tended to be seen as generic and not subject specific. On that score neo-traditionalists probably have a point. Mathematics and Art have very different ways of knowing.

The difference between thinking well and expertise

I BLOGGED about the difference between thinking well, or as Old Andrew calls it intellectual development, and expertise some time ago. Education does not deliver expertise to anyone. The most of us, are not experts in anything and never will be.  We can still “think well” though or, at least, well enough to get things done.

Often the most intelligent people don’t know the most, however they do; listen, are open to new ideas and take the time to consider positions.The skills that we most value in the work place are often soft skills: communication, collaboration and empathy.

Anyone who has ever BLOGGED will know that confronting any issue requires a great deal of reflection on that issue and the ability to hypothesise the problem, spending time interacting with the text to refine ideas. All skills which are knowledge based but not subject specific.

Many skills are reliant on both cognitive and non cognitive factors and have little to do with specific bodies of knowledge or facts. My guess is that these skills rely on personality, genetic inheritance and non cognitive attributes as much as long term memory or facts.

Traducing cognition to the issue of long term memory or facts is, in my view at least,  about as much use as a chocolate tea pot. In the longer term we need to look at cognition holistically, even if, in the here and now progressives might say point taken, too much about skills and not enough focus on the realtionship between skills and knowledge.

Conclusion: the primacy of skills   

In my last BLOG I tried to outline a way of looking at knowledge; reliable, purposeful generated by identifiable fields. In this BLOG I want to suggest that the objective of education is to cohere students into those fields of intellectual expertise whether they be; science, art, humanity, traditional trades or the newer knowledge fields such as the creative arts and digital media. That involves the “how to think” of those fields as well as the “what to think”.

Knowledge does not make you clever nor does anyone leave school with expert knowledge of anything. In fact teachers are not experts in their fields. Their body of knowledge has been re-contextualised to be used in schools and is not the knowledge of the expert.

The problem with the skills debate is that it has become locked into a culture that seems to have normed epistemic fallacies. Even when we attempt to deal with skills we tend to see them as things in themselves distinct from knowledge or other aspects of cognition or in terms of simple dichotomies; declarative and procedural. Skills do not preclude knowledge but they aren’t concerned with the facts of things that exist in the natural world. They are concerned with thinking well about things; whatever those things might be.

The focus of schools should be the development of skills. Thinking well or intellectual development is the key to a good education not acquiring knowledge. Expertise and in-depth knowledge takes many years in practice to develop. Schools waste too much time on knowledge that has become estranged from the fields that generate it; both academic and practice as well as the relationship that knowledge has with genuinely expert knowing.

The Knowledge debate

  1. CavMathsSkills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?
  2. Tom Sherrington: Some Knowledge-Skills Interplay
  3. Chris Hildrew: It’s not skills – it’s know-how
  4. David DidauSome dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ and Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having
  5. Chris Chivers: The Search for Quality and Experiential Learning
  6. TDRE Boss: Knowledge vs Skills (An RE Perspective)
  7. Benjamin EvansFHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills
  8. Geoff PettyTeaching skills is vital: why God doesn’t agree with ‘Seven Myths about Education’
  9. Michelle Budge: Knowledge Vs Skills
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10 thoughts on “On the problem of knowledge – part two: progressivism and the primacy of skills #blogsync

  1. Please don’t quote me if you can’t be bothered to put what I am saying in any kind of context. You are quoting from blogposts that are not about progressive education, but about different types of traditionalism. In that context I am only discussing progressive education where highlighting the difference between progressives and traditionalists helps illustrates the differences between traditionalists. I am certainly not setting out a “neo-traditionalist” position, I explicitly point out that this term is unhelpful and doesn’t correspond to any meaningful differences between traditionalists.

    When I say “I don’t have a lot of time for these [progressive] arguments”, I mean I think they are poor arguments, not that I have ignored them. I have covered them in previous blogposts. You have removed my opinions from the context in which I expressed them, taken no effort to look for posts in which I justify them and then engaged in arguing against a number of straw man positions, most noticeably the idea that when I talk about knowledge I mean “facts”.

    1. I can’t quote everything you say and I have linked to your article. Others can read it.

      As you say you are differentiating between different types of Traditionalism. I label them you don’t seems fair enough.

      You effectively do away with epistemology in the last sentence of the passage as many traditionalists do. The phrase “the best that has been thought and said” is the vehicle to do it.

      If you put a link on your BLOG somewhere where you contextualise that passage I will include that on the quote.

  2. Firstly, I’m not asking you to quote everything I say, I am just asking you to be honest about what you are quoting. I was not arguing against progressives in that post and, as a result of ignoring that fact, you have implied that my arguments against progressives are incomplete or unavailable and also addressed straw men positions I don’t hold.

    Secondly, it’s not that you use labels and I don’t, it’s that your labels are undefined and unhelpful. Why is what I’m saying a “neo-traditionalist” position rather than a “traditionalist” position? My argument was about how divisions in traditionalism haven’t been analysed in any depth, and that terms like “neo-traditionalist” have not described genuine divisions. So why use that to describe my position?

    Thirdly, my argument is that my sort of traditionalism is about whether we should learn what is considered to be, in our culture, the best of what has been thought and said. That doesn’t do away with epistemology (or any of the other branches of philosophy necessary to considering what is best), it is arguing that it is something that cannot be left to educationalists. I realise that you would rather the philosophical argument was had among educationalists, but that does not mean it has been left out, it has just been left open because it is a question that is not simply an educational one.

    1. You haven’t read it properly.

      You see you are accusing me of being dishonest. I have quoted a significant passage of text. In my opinion it is honest.

      My point is that your dismissal of epistemology and the use of the “best of” etc is confirmation of that dismissal. I haven’t made any comment about your views on progressives or any reference to incomplete arguments.

      I simply have said that the passage that you wrote is symptomatic of an issue in neo-traditonalism, which I consider has no epistemic basis. And which I have defined clearly here: https://edsacredprofane.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/on-the-politics-of-pedagogy-the-best-that-has-been-thought-and-said-says-who/

      I am agreeing with your point that traditionalism has a problem, which you have identified but not then resolved. In other words knowing stuff is not the same as being clever.

      If you have an epistemic perspective then point to it on your BLOG’s where you make a BLOG so those than can read them see them.

      I read a lot of your stuff and many other traditionalists and I never see a fully worked out epistemology other than a mish mash of kesrchner, Sweller and Clarke, Willingham and Hirsch. That was my point.

      Again I believe that in the passages I quote you have dismissed epistemology twice. That is my honest opinion and I can only quote what I see

  3. You said:

    “Not having much time “for these arguments” is fine but is that, the same as, just not having much of an argument?”

    This does imply that I was glossing over something relevant to the discussion, rather than that it wasn’t what I was talking about here, but had addressed at length elsewhere.

    Again, I have not “dismissed” epistemology, I have just questioned its direct relevance to this debate, and explained why at length. This is not “dismissal”. This is about identifying what is necessary for one’s arguments, and not getting drawn into discussing red herrings.

    As for the difference between cleverness and knowledge, my posts accepted that difference, but pointed out that while the concepts differed, gaining knowledge is the only known route to becoming cleverer.

    1. As I said if you have adressed it then link it to the text and I will include it in my BLOG. I have no wish to misquote you or misrepresent your opinions. That is how I understood what you have written. I am quite happy to correct it.

      An as I say there is no correlation between knowledge and clever. You need knowledge to be clever but it isn’t knowledge that makes you clever. It’s something else. I call it skills you can call it something else.

      1. It really is not good enough to ask for me to provide links after the event to everything you accused me of not having arguments against, you should have looked to see if I had addressed them before you made the accusation.

        I’m not sure why you think there is no correlation between cleverness and knowledge. Can you give an example of somebody who is famously clever, but also very ignorant? Or any good reason for ignoring the empirical evidence that we think using what we know? Or is this back to the idea that knowledge is just “facts”?

      2. “While progressives have always challenged the body of knowledge to be learnt (the tradition) on a wide variety of grounds such as political incorrectness, obsolescence, irrelevance and the nature of those making the selection, I’ve never really had much time for these arguments. ”

        That does not suggest that you have dealt with this elsewhere. It clearly suggests that you have no time for the arguments. There is no way that I can conclude that you may have had time for it at some point in the past.

        Normally when you make a statement you justify it. You haven’t – the fault is on your side. If you have been careless with language that is fair enough and I am happy to rectify it when you post the links.

        You say:

        “I’m not sure why you think there is no correlation between cleverness and knowledge. Can you give an example of somebody who is famously clever, but also very ignorant”

        That’s just repeating your last point about knowledge and cleverness. As I said you cannot be clever without knowledge but it’s not knowledge that makes you clever. Therefore I cannot name anyone clever who has no knowledge that is implicit to my last response.

        I can think of many people who have a lot of knowledge but are not especially clever. In fact there are people who make a living out of having a lot of knowledge that are not especially clever.

        “Or any good reason for ignoring the empirical evidence that we think using what we know?”

        That is another way of saying the same thing. We drive a car but it is not the car that makes the good driver. Equally no one ever drove anywhere without a car. I deal with these arguments in the BLOG.

        Or is this back to the idea that knowledge is just “facts”?

        Have you read the BLOGS? I deal with knowing that is knowledge dependent but not subject specific

  4. “That does not suggest that you have dealt with this elsewhere.”

    No, not when you take it out of the context of a discussion that was about something else and not about this. Hence the problem. You made it look like I dodged the issue, rather than simply pointed out the conclusions I had already come to.

    “As I said you cannot be clever without knowledge but it’s not knowledge that makes you clever”

    So you were wrong to say they were not correlated?

    “Equally no one ever drove anywhere without a car. I deal with these arguments in the BLOG.”

    Really? I thought you dismissed them with some guff about how people weren’t discussing epistemology.

    1. Not unusually we are going around in circles.

      You said I had misquoted you about progressivism I said “no” I was talking about epistemology

      I said you had dismissed epistemology – you said you had dealt with it elsewhere. I said fine post the links and I will sort it out.

      As far as I am concerned it isn’t out of context.

      “So you were wrong to say they were not correlated?”

      This comment isn’t meaningful to me you will have to explain further

      “Really? I thought you dismissed them with some guff about how people weren’t discussing epistemology.”

      The guff in the BLOG is what I was referring to…!

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