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.
- CavMaths: Skills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?
- Tom Sherrington: Some Knowledge-Skills Interplay
- Chris Hildrew: It’s not skills – it’s know-how
- David Didau: Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ and Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having
- Chris Chivers: The Search for Quality and Experiential Learning
- TDRE Boss: Knowledge vs Skills (An RE Perspective)
- Benjamin Evans: FHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills
- Geoff Petty: Teaching skills is vital: why God doesn’t agree with ‘Seven Myths about Education’
- Michelle Budge: Knowledge Vs Skills