Having to win the argument all over again

In a speech last June, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, talked about the importance of a market economy with strong growth and remarked “I thought that we had won that argument. But I learnt in the general election that we had not.” These words come to mind when I consider some of the big debates in education today.

I left school in 1988 and didn’t revisit that world until January of last year, when I dipped my toes into teaching by volunteering at a local secondary school.  In that space of time, a paradigm shift seems to have occurred. So many of the things I’ve always taken for granted in education are no longer obvious or even accepted. If you had told me that the job of a teacher was to talk as little as possible and allow the students to learn by discovery, I would have said you were mad. If you had said ‘facts are no longer that important, what you need to learn at school are transferrable skills such as problem solving and critical thinking’ I would have been genuinely befuddled. I still am, to a certain extent. How do you quantify something nebulous like critical thinking? Is there a before and after point where you can say, this person has become a critical thinker?

And surely one of the hallmarks of someone educated is that they know a lot of stuff? Apparently not. Learning facts is a waste of time when you can just look them up on Google. I interact with people from many walks of life, all of whom have access to Google on their smart phones. However, only with a few would I be able to hold a conversation about the merits of Jane Austen’s novels over Charlotte Brontë’s.  If they don’t know much about each author, or haven’t read any of their novels, then there’s not much to discuss, notwithstanding the mobile phone on hand to look things up. But wait a minute. I hear you say, ‘so what, this is a specialist, elitist subject that doesn’t matter in everyday life, who cares if you can’t join in this conversation?’ I might dispute this, as both these authors provide us with insights into the human condition that add to our understanding of who we are and the behaviour of people around us.  Such insights that we gain from reading great works of art help us to make better sense of our lives and to negotiate our relationships with others. They help us, in other words, to be happier people. It’s no coincidence then, that intelligence correlates strongly with happiness and good mental health (see my notes on David Didau’s talk at ResearchED Rugby).

And so the argument, which I thought had well and truly been won decades ago, needs to be won all over again. Knowledge matters, if we want to be able to join in that conversation of mankind. In schools, it is the teachers who must have the knowledge and the students who need to learn it. But what happens when the teachers don’t actually have enough knowledge themselves? It’s a perfectly plausible scenario if those teachers were educated in an environment that emphasised skills over knowledge. That would also colour their view of what teaching should look like, as we are most likely to replicate a lot of what we experienced in schools ourselves when we come to teach. This, I think, helps to explain why I have observed so many history lessons where teachers only had surface knowledge of the topic they were teaching and often could not answer some left field questions that came at them from curious students. It also explains why students were not stretched or engaged by the subject at hand – they were being taught the bullet points but not the substance. Ben Newmark explains why teacher knowledge is so important if we want to challenge our students in this fabulous blog.

I am not trying to bash any teachers here either. What I want to highlight is firstly, the nature of the challenge faced in trying to win the knowledge argument again, and secondly to emphasise the importance of subject knowledge in CPD so that teachers are given the means to improve their own knowledge. Let me end this post with a photo shared by Michael Fordham yesterday from his session with Christine Counsell on Senior Curriculum Leadership (which I hope he doesn’t mind my including here). It encapsulates much of what I’ve been trying to say.

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