Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Binary binary binary

It’s been a while since my last effort, and meanwhile all manner of debate rages across the educational landscape, or battlefield. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my far from fully thought out contribution.

What is it with all this binary business, I wonder?

According to Dweck, for example, we either have a “growth” or “fixed” mindset. (The former is the better bet, apparently, as you can then pay lots of money for training and stuff, whereas if you’re of a fixed mindset then presumably all you do is just go down the pub.)

Or, of course, we can be “traditionalist” or “progressive” in our teaching. Sorry, sorry, I mean teaching and learning. No, wait a minute, I mean learning and teaching. It changed order a while back, didn’t it? Apologies.

(True story: way back when plans for Scotland’s shiny new “Curriculum for Excellence” were first unveiled, ooh, ages ago, there was a lot of talk about “Outcomes and Experiences”, until suddenly there wasn’t. because they were retitled “Experiences and Outcomes”. Boy, am I glad we got that sorted out. And that people were, presumably, paid money so to do. But I digress.)

And now, as a sort of subplot of the whole “trad” v “prog” business, we have the BIG FIGHT that is “knowledge” versus “skills”. The Gove versus, em, NUT smackdown. And this is serious stuff, let there be no doubt.

But, does it really have to be so much of an “either/or”? Can’t we have a bit of mix and match?
Now obviously people will lean to one side of a debate rather than the other (excepting possibly Nick Clegg), so let me declare my, um, loyalties here. I’m a big fan of the knowledge brigade, to the point where I have copies of both of Daniel T Willingham’s books and have University Challenge on series link, though it’s been a while since my last pub quiz. I strongly suspect that if an employer, say, complains that a pupil can’t do shit, then it’s probably because they don’t know shit either. And if someone mentions “21st Century Skills” or “21st Century Learning” to me then I will reach for a nearby hockey stick with fully murderous intent.  I’m not out of the Govean closet yet (can I really be thinking that he of all people has a point?) but I’m in there alright, fumbling for the light switch and worrying a bit about the possibility. It seems to be quite crowded in there, I might add…

But I can see that skills have their place – proper, actual skills, that is, as opposed to vacuous guff. OK, for me, that place is as a sort of corollary to all the knowledge which (one hopes) pupils are building up in the classroom. Nowt wrong with a bit of Higher Order Thinking Skills, if that’s your bag, just so long as pupils have built up the knowledge necessary to get that far up Bloom’s colourful pyramid. (Bloom’s is a pyramid, right? I can’t be bothered checking.) It’s not as if I’m going to refuse to teach a skill, is it? And along similar lines, are NUT History teachers really going to refuse to teach facts? (“Miss, when was the Battle of Hastings?” “I’m not telling.”)

Meanwhile, some of the rhetoric in all this debate is, frankly, a real pain. I mean, honestly, do those NUT speakers really think that traditionalists want kids to learn facts and nothing else? To do nothing with that accumulated knowledge? Give me a break. And are we really, honestly, going to have a debate about whether or not it’s A Good Thing for kids to know their times tables? Again? On the other hand, Gove really should check where education lecturers send their kids to school before he accords them the label “Marxist”.

So, in summary, and to conclude: er, I dunno.  But I tell you, I can’t be bothered with this binary business. Teaching is a complex art, or science, or whatever. And when we claim to have cracked it, that it’s either THIS or THAT, and then decide this (or, let’s be fair, that) is the way things have to be done, then in come the snake-oil salesmen to do their stuff, and before you know it the Deputy Head’s gone out and spent the year’s CPD budget on learning bicycles.

We are better than this, surely.  Though I do sometimes recall my mother’s fairly regular comment to me, and fear that it could apply to many teachers:

“Ye know, tae be so clever, yer awfy stupit.”


  1. Yeah, but when every fact you could imagine is now instantly available via smart phone, what's the point in memorising them? Surely it would be better to learn how to use a smart phone, how to critically decide if sources are valid or not, how to combine data from multiple sources to produce a coherent picture, how to empathise with authors and interpret text and evaluate presentations and... You get my point. All skills!

    1. How do you know what to look up if you don't know anything? Why spend time looking up facts when you could be doing something interesting with them instead?

  2. RD, I really can't buy the smart phone argument. I don't think you can reach the sort of level where you are able to "critique" something, without first doing the hard graft of acquiring the necessary knowledge. Being blunt, if what you say is true, then why the hell aren't we all suddenly a whole lot smarter because of the internet?

    You'll probably be well aware of counter arguments but you can do worse than start with ED Hirsch - see for example http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2000/LookItUpSpring2000.pdf . There's even an article out there somewhere by someone high up in google, which supports this view, but I can't seem to find it just now. (Seems my "looking up" skills are a little rusty...)