Thesis: Generalist Skills. Antithesis: Knowledge. Synthesis: Core concepts that transfer
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Adam Boxer recently tweeted that the golden age of Edublogging had passed. Those earlier, very personal, but not heavily researched posts, eventually gave way to subject specific blogs as the new paradigm took hold. I agree with his description of the events, my blog is also subject specific, but not with the interpretation that it is an end point. Indeed James Mannion suggests that the big thinking is still to be found, just in podcasts and books.
This post is an attempt at that blogosphere bigger thinking. Unlike my other posts, this shall follow that tradition of the personal thoughts, and I shall scatter links to my other posts throughout.
The post intends to provoke discussion. There are generalisations, and I understand many teachers do a fantastic job; I see them everyday on Twitter.
This is my current thinking:
Thesis: Paradigm of Generalist Skills
Antithesis: Paradigm of Knowledge
Synthesis: Paradigm of Core Concepts (skills?), dependent on meaningful knowledge, that transfer
Let me summarise each in turn.
Thesis: Paradigm of Generalist Skills
I trained as a teacher in the midst of the Generalist Skills paradigm. I even read Guy Claxton's Building Learning Power during my training year. Its central tenet, that general thinking skills were the purpose of education, was soon set to be challenged, but I did manage to witness many unintended consequences.
These included teachers believing they could teach any subject because at the heart of all subjects was the general thinking skills, which, of course, were developed with a general set of pedagogical activities.
Professional development tended to whole-school pedagogy, typically some sort of activity, that should be generalised to all classrooms. Observation regimes were rife with non-specialists imposing upon specialist teachers their opinion of lessons and subjects they couldn't really understand in a content or pedagogical sense.
The subject, it's domain knowledge, its traditions, and its way of seeing, were diminished.
Antithesis: Paradigm of Knowledge
When I first began reading some of the first books that challenged this paradigm I felt enlightened, and liberated. These sources gave me a sense of confidence about putting the subject back at the centre of learning.
I was captivated, and my teaching changed as a result. Great new ways of teaching and explaining entered the discourse and I improved vastly in my abilities by participating in it all.
However, the pendulum, having gained much potential, swung heavily. Teachers delved deeply into the research on cognitive science in search of a definitive authority to give credibility to the new paradigm over the last, but not many other areas.
Many great things have come from cognitive science awareness in education. However, Knowledge = Understanding became a sort of mantra, which was based on the importance of memorisation of knowledge, and the means of doing so: retrieval practice.
While the central ideas had change, the cult of pedagogy remained. On the whole, the new paradigm saw a shift from one set of pedagogical activities to another. Practice out paced theory.
Teachers were now suddenly expected to conduct regular quizzes at specific times of lessons, for example, repeating the mistake of generalised pedagogy. The new trend of quizzes rose quickly, and so teachers put lots of energy into making huge quantities of questions for students to practice.
In the area of science, the idea of Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP), reflected this movement. As such, I witnessed a huge increase in poorly designed questions that only led students towards rote learning of surface features. I believe in subject specialism, so this is an observation I have made for biology, but I assume the trend can be generalised.
It doesn't take much effort to see how knowledge may increase understanding, but nor is it difficult to see how the model Knowledge=Understanding is mistaken, too reductionist, and not explanatory.
If knowledge is simply rote learnt, it is not connected to anything in the person's understanding of the world. However, if it is organised, and connected to prior knowledge then students can make sense of it. It becomes meaningful.
Understanding emerges from meaningful learning, not rote learning, and so the idealised model of Knowledge=Understanding fails to include the learner and how they make meaning. An assumption too far.
The knowledge paradigm has established, and rightly so, the necessity of knowledge as a prerequisite for deep thought and skills. But, in my opinion, has failed to yet establish the argument of how to fully include the learner in its models beyond recognition of the working and long term memories.
The new emphasis on curriculum design is to be applauded and supported. I agree that this is one of the most important improvements that the Knowledge Paradigm has brought. But, it is still in its infancy, theoretically and practically.
This is seen easily in the UK based science education EduTwitter sphere, that currently supports sequence as the principal curriculum design tool. This has seen many curricula being developed that have learning move from small scales (such as atoms, or cells), and move up to bigger scales (such as organs, organisms, to ecosystems) in biology.
Sequencing around these 'levels of organisation' is prioritising sequence, according to the domain structure, over anything else
However, curriculum design isn't about sequencing, it's about negotiating meaning with students. Therefore sequencing is subordinate to meaning making. The above ideas have sequenced learning by prioritising the layering of content in terms of size, rather than what will make sense to a student.
In most cases courses are simply sequenced as the contents are seen in an exam specification, which are designed for reference and not meaning making. Of course, this reasoning is to be understood if the reductionist model of Knowledge = Understanding is taken to heart.
A major cause of this problem is the development of the Knowledge Paradigm within a high-stakes accountability system that focuses on terminal exams.
Ideas within this paradigm have been constrained by the exam mark-scheme expertise culture (for example, in biology see here), and the idea that GCSE grades are all that matter. If a student can (short) answer the practice questions correctly, then the knowledge paradigm has done its job well.
High stakes accountability over curriculum design has led to teachers memorising statements of 'curriculum intent', instead of holding a deep understanding of a long term vision for their students. Within the knowledge paradigm, the curriculum is just about learning more knowledge.
GCSE grades do matter, but we need to strive way beyond what they can measure in their current form. For example, in science, how much can short answer questions capture understanding? Even a '6 mark question' is quite short.
If anything, we must all acknowledge that the vast majority of the details we teach will fade with time after students finish formal education in our subjects. This is a sharp issue for the Knowledge Paradigm, and which leads us into the next section.
Synthesis: Paradigm of Core Concepts, dependent on meaningful knowledge, that transfer
The logical way forward is to combine the two. We do need skills, and we do need knowledge. However maybe both need a little rethinking so that they can combine easily.
Rather than the generalist (vague) skills, we must look to domain specific skills that transfer widely, domain specific dispositions (patterns of thinking), and ways of seeing. These are the core mental models with which students think and interpret new content and contexts, but which are themselves dependent on a deep understanding of the content of a domain. Let me focus on these here.
These will only be understood well by subject specialists, so let me give some examples from biology. Evolution, Systems Thinking (understanding life as a system), and the Philosophy of Biology. As the former is more widely known, let me focus on that.
Evolution is currently a topic that gets little time in biology curricula. It may get a single topic in lower secondary, and one more in upper secondary. In the latter case it is typically placed at the end of the entire course, and memorising techniques, such as, mnemonics are employed for students to remember the knowledge. All the while it is not mentioned in other topics.
This epitomises the current knowledge paradigm. A deep concept that is fundamental to understanding the domain is often just considered to be 'knowledge', and given equal status to the rest of the content of the curriculum.
There is a lack of organisation for meaning, such that curriculum in the knowledge paradigm is just a linear process of going from lesson to lesson, obtaining more knowledge, rather than considering the non-linear, highly interconnected, and hierarchical nature of the domain.
Evolution is an incredibly powerful concept that will completely transform how students see the subject content. It transcends all of biology, allowing students to carry forward their learning into new topics, to be able to interpret novel contexts, to be able to make meaning.
It is a model that can gain in complexity throughout secondary education, as students add more facets and details, that allow them to understand the world around them in ever more complex ways.
If done correctly, students can leave schooling with robust models of evolution that, unlike the details we teach, will not fade with time, but will allow students to interpret nature for the rest of their lives.
But it doesn't end there; evolution, is an interdisciplinary concept (as are systems thinking and philosophy). Evolution is not restricted to biology alone. It can explain the evolution of ideas, culture, and technology, through variation, selection, and persistence.
This is the synthesis. It is a core concept, a mental model, a skill that transfers widely, but which is highly dependent on a body of meaningful knowledge and domain specific practice.
The road forward is to think about curriculum design not within the knowledge paradigm, but within the synthesis of skills and knowledge. It's about taking the learner to the heart of curriculum design, and not overly prioritise the organisation of a domain.
It is to provide students with the core domain knowledge that allows them to construct the core mental models, that will in turn, allow them to make sense of the world beyond school.
In the knowledge paradigm connecting is about linking to previously taught content, and thinking about what students need to know to access later material.
The synthesis incorporates this, but adds the linking forward, towards defined goals of forming specific robust mental models, and domain specific dispositions, which occurs over time through co-construction between teacher and student.
It's not just what we want them to know and the ability to answer short-answer questions. Within this paradigm, curriculum design is about what we want our students to be able to do, and think, based upon a core of meaningful knowledge, at the end of secondary education.
This means that effective teaching methods, which are at the centre of the knowledge paradigm (like highly-interactive direct instruction), remain important, but are not the only part of education. The construction of robust mental models, those ways of thinking, goes way beyond initial teaching. We need to think more about the mechanisms of acquiring meaning and developing robust domain dispositions of thinking.
This is just one facet of thinking about the future of education. Check out the Rethinking Education Twitter account for more.
Christian Moore Anderson
@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)