Engagement, behaviour and the knowledge-rich curriculum

Last weekend I watched the debate held at the Global Education and Skills Forum entitled: “This House believes that 21st Century learners need their heads filled with pure facts”. Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and Ark’s Daisy Christodoulou, speaking in favour of the motion, managed an impressive feat, winning the debate after initially getting only 20% of the audience’s vote.

The problem I identified, as did Nick Gibb, was the false dichotomy presented in the title, based on the idea that proponents of a knowledge-rich curriculum are only interested in filling pupils’ heads with facts and nothing else. This is a dangerously inaccurate representation of the debate, framing it in terms of a choice between rote-learning of facts and the teaching of higher order skills such as critical thinking.

As I listened to the speakers on both sides of the debate, I realised that actually, there wasn’t much disagreement about what they wanted to achieve, what we all want to achieve: capable, thinking, creative people who can rise to the challenges of the 21st Century. The differences occur in how each side proposes to reach this goal.

I have written before about the schooling I had in the early 1980s and about how copious reading enabled me and my peers to arrive at our lessons already well prepped for learning. The quantity of books I got through each month is pretty mind boggling by today’s standards. Without realising it, as I devoured each story I absorbed, osmosis-like, tons of knowledge about history, science, human nature, vocabulary and syntax. When we learned about the industrial revolution, it wasn’t totally new to me as I had already encountered aspects of it in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” and in Hector Malot’s “En famille” (I read in both English and French), and Dickens’ work meant I was already familiar with the poverty and social problems of the era.

Imagine, if you will, a situation where your classroom is filled with pupils who, like me, are widely read. Immediately, as a teacher, you are gifted with the following:

  • Pupils who are much more likely to stay on task and not to be disruptive. Why? Because in order to read, you need to be able to sit quietly for hours and focus.
  • Pupils with a high degree of literacy – you are thus able to set them complex writing tasks.
  • Pupils who will contribute knowledgeably to class discussion so that you can discuss a topic in greater depth.

In such a classroom, there is no need for rote-learning of facts – a lot of the base knowledge is already there. This is the classroom where critical thinking and problem solving happens. This is the classroom where so called “higher order” skills are developed, honed and sharpened.

Now imagine another classroom, one you are more likely to see today. It is filled with children who have not developed the habit of reading. These children have not yet learned how to sit still, how to listen, how to work quietly. They struggle to string together a single grammatically-correct sentence. Their vocabulary is poor and their knowledge is limited. How on earth do you propose, in such a classroom, to develop those higher order skills, when the “lower order” ones are not yet there? More likely than not, there will be low-level disruption too.

As I have discussed before, the challenge we face in today’s world is that we have children who for the most part, at home, spend their time glued to their computer screens or playing video games. They are exposed to fast moving action on their screens, constantly changing graphics and noise. Put these children in a classroom and they are going to struggle to sit still and focus their attention on the analogue world of textbooks or worksheets. From thence comes the perceived need to engage them with fun activities, colourful slides and videos. One thing I have noticed about the resources shared by many teachers on my Twitter feed is the amount of games and group activities that are involved. One blog even went as far as to suggest that we could engage our pupils’ attention by teaching them through the medium of a video game.

This puts me in mind of mothers who hide pureed vegetables in their kids’ pasta sauce in order to surreptitiously feed them their five-a-day. Through these “engaging” activities, the hope is that we can sneak in some educational nuggets here and there. My fear is that by doing this, we are exacerbating the problem rather than dealing with it. If we keep trying to make things fun, we are not addressing the main obstacle to the children’s learning: their inability to sit quietly and focus. At what point do we say, “enough is enough, these kids should be able to concentrate on their work by now”? Is it right that year 10s are still having to be spoon fed their curriculum through card sorting activities? What’s going to happen to these kids when they leave school, enter the workforce (if they find a job) and find they are unable to cope with the repetitiveness of it or the lack of fun activities? What will they do then? Have a tantrum? I think not.

So here we are, this is the challenge that we face. And here is where the two different schools of thought, knowledge-led/skills-led, diverge. The knowledge brigade is clear that we need to instil as much knowledge as possible, through extensive reading, knowledge organisers, drills and yes, even rote-learning, so that the pupils are able to tackle those higher order skills we all want them to develop. For this to happen, discipline and strong behaviour systems are also essential. The skills brigade would rather skip ahead to the end product and engage in project-based learning and to practice generic skills which they believe (erroneously in my view) can be transferred from one subject matter to another.

To say, as some do, that there isn’t really a debate to be had, that all teachers teach knowledge, is to miss the point. There is an ideological fault line. However, let’s keep well away from those misleading tropes about the mindless, rote learning of facts.

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