Putting my oar into the knowledge versus skills debate

I wrote this a while ago, on a different blog. After re-reading it, I find I’m still in agreement with its sentiment.

Nearly everything I read on my Twitter feed these days seems to be connected, in one way or another, to the knowledge versus skills debate that is currently raging in certain educational circles. I was initially rather bemused by it, thinking it strange that people should need to make a case for what seems to me to be the blimming obvious. Knowledge is good. Duh!

It has rapidly dawned on me though, that part of the disconnect for me is a generational one. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took my A-levels and the educational landscape has changed immeasurably since then. What was the norm in my day – didactic teaching of a knowledge-led curriculum – has become something rather contentious. When I talk about a knowledge-led curriculum, I don’t mean that we had to memorise lots of facts unthinkingly. I don’t remember doing much of that. I do remember the teacher, standing at the front of the class, giving us information which we would hastily write down in our exercise books (I had to learn shorthand pretty quickly), probing questions, class discussions, and writing up lots of essays that were then marked with a very critical eye. We were usually expected to read a designated chapter from the textbook before each lesson so that we came prepared to discuss whatever the topic was. There was real depth to our discussions too.

There never was any separation of substantive from disciplinary knowledge – the two went together. Yes we learned about lots of historical events but then we discussed different interpretations of these events, causal factors and tried to explain why particular decisions were made. The type of essay questions we were given almost invariably included discussing different interpretations of a historical figure or event. For example, questions like Examine the view that Edward the Confessor was too much influenced by Normans, or “Not one of the English rebellions during the early years of the reign of King William I seriously threatened his authority.” How far do you agree?

So, while there was a great deal of depth and breadth to our curriculum (what would now be called a knowledge-led curriculum), it was never rote learning or simply copying down lots of facts without thought or analysis. One thing we didn’t do, not even when I went to university, was to analyse original sources just for the sake of it. Naturally we had a look at the Bayeux Tapestry and text sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Orderic Vitalis , we discussed the context in which the sources were written and implications for us as historians, but we never actually had to annotate a source and examine its usefulness for a particular enquiry or discuss what other evidence we would need to back it up.

From a personal standpoint, I don’t really get the obsession with source material in history as it is taught today. I know primary sources are critical for professional historians, who are undertaking research, writing articles in journals and publishing their works. I also know that very often, specialised skill is required to be able to read and understand these sources. If you watched the TV programme about 1066 currently airing on the BBC, you will have seen historian Mark Morris, wielding a magnifying glass and easily reading the Latin text which to us would be unintelligible. This is a very specialist skill, and not a particularly transferable one. Would Mark Morris be able to decipher an ancient Arabic scroll and tell us what useful information could be gleaned from it? Probably not. So while there needs to be a general  understanding of how we piece together information about the past and the problems inherent in our approaches, I don’t think the “skill” of analysing sources should be overstated.

I get surprised when I hear other history teachers essentially describing their subject in terms of the ability to understand and analyse sources, as if that is what makes a historian. To me, history the subject, is all about stories of our past and piecing together our shared humanity, unravelling the complex web of events that led to where we are today. How our parliamentary democracy was born with the Magna Carta, which itself was the culmination of the reign of a greedy and incompetent king, whose powers in turn were the result of the unique circumstances following the Norman conquest of England. History is about understanding who we are and how we got here. That’s the real power and draw of the subject, not some abstract skill for analysing a source.

So, is there room for all our different approaches to history teaching to co-exist? Should we just agree to live and let live? While I would love to say yes, I do have some very serious reservations about the so called “progressive” approach, where skills are emphasised, often at the expense of substantive knowledge. I am sure most of my fellow colleagues blogging on Twitter, no matter where they stand in this debate, teach an awful lot of knowledge in their lessons. But I have seen the other side of progressive history education, and it’s deeply worrying.

I have seen teachers that are not expert in their subject, teaching the knowledge superficially, practically in bullet points. Today, in one history lesson, I heard the teacher talk about Elizabeth being “coronated” in 1559 (whatever that means) and another teacher repeatedly mispronounce the word “recusants” as “rescuants”. One task we had in class today was for the students to pair and share to discuss how Elizabeth should settle the problem of religion at the start of her reign. Most of them concluded that Elizabeth should just let people practice their religion freely (and then presumably everyone would live happily and freely side by side). This was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to explain why this was not possible in 1559, why Elizabeth needed England to be a Protestant country, how otherwise her legitimacy as the daughter of the union between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII would be called into question. Of course none of this happened, as the lesson starter was quickly followed by a brisk look at the actual religious settlement – a sheet with a column each for the Act of Supremacy, the Act of Uniformity and the Royal Injunctions filled out with bullet points, without any particular depth of discussion. No wonder the students don’t particularly seem to engage with the subject when it is taught at such a shallow level!

Knowledge matters, not just in the curriculum but also within the teacher himself or herself. I hate to say it but what I am seeing is a dumbing down, a teaching of the basics needed to pass the exam but no deeper texture or meaning. I hope you would all agree that this is not the way forward.

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