'When did the importance of knowledge become the presumptive preserve of the Right?'

2nd July 2015 at 17:51
Kevin Stannard

How many countries does the equator pass through?

Where is the pituitary gland?

In which century was Abraham Lincoln born?

Who knows? Who cares?

The value of accumulating, storing and recalling knowledge in the form of facts is under assault from connectivism, a learning theory that takes as its starting point the existence of technology and networks that have allowed us access to vastly increased volumes of information stored elsewhere. Add to that the awareness that knowledge itself grows exponentially, and you have the result that bits of knowledge are added to, transformed and rendered redundant ever more quickly – creating a world in which the “half-life” of knowledge is rapidly reducing.

In such a world, why bother trying to digest and commit to memory information that stands to be overtaken in any case, especially when our digitally connected world allows instantaneous access to the most up-to-date information held elsewhere? Knowing lots of things appears to be very twentieth century. Knowing where to find things is surely the basis of twenty-first century life.

This is not unconnected to the orthodoxy that young people today cannot expect to be trained for a single career that they will hold throughout their working lives. The implication is that there is no fixed stock of knowledge that they need to imbibe early and call on over the long term. The premium now is on conceptual agility and transferrable skills.

This lines up well with progressive educational approaches that see learning as an active process directed by the student, rather than a top-down didactic process of transmitting knowledge from the teacher to the student. In the more dynamic model what is being taught (content) is less important than the way it is being learned (skills).

But in a digital information environment in which networks hold distributed information, there is a danger that the individual is reduced to being a bit like what is referred to in computing terms as a "thin client" – relying much less on the data stored in the local memory and much more on the ability to connect with knowledge stored elsewhere. Processing power becomes distributed and is lost to the individual.

As learners, we are not merely repositories of information; we don’t just store data. If we did, having access to other data stores would do just as well. As learners, we are taught to hone the tools to interpret facts, to test their value, to compare them and make links, to build chains of reasoning, to draw conclusions, to engage others in debate. Without these skills, knowledge is moot. Skills are crucial in breathing operational life into the world of data; in deriving knowledge from information.

It should be obvious that these skills can’t be practised in a vacuum, free of cognitive content. American educationist Diane Ravitch has shown convincingly that the development of higher-order cognitive skills depends on having knowledge to work on. Facts, information, knowledge; these are the building blocks of reasoning.

We seem to appreciate this intuitively. People still value actually knowing things, rather than just knowing where to find facts on demand. The thirst for knowledge apparently remains unquenched – if the continued popularity of quizzes in the pub, at work dos, on the internet and TV, and even in the interstices of formal education, are anything to go by.

Here’s another question (though admittedly not one recommended for a quick-fire fingers-on-buzzers round): when did the value of knowing things become the leitmotif of educational hardliners? When did the importance of knowledge become the presumptive preserve of the Right?

It is a shame that the primacy of knowledge has been suborned by self-appointed keepers of the factual flame, who seek to roll back what they see as the advances of progressive education in recent decades. In the US, ED Hirsch sounded the clarion call of core knowledge with What Every American Needs To Know. In the UK, Michael Gove took up the charge with his devotion to dates. Teacher, educationist and writer Daisy Christodoulou made committing facts to memory a sine qua non of sound education. None of this is new, of course. Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times cleared the path: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts…”

So many straw men must surely set off an allergy alert, if not a fire hazard. Those who seek to turn the tide of progressive education assume that the latter is opposed to the learning of demanding amounts of hard curriculum content. But progressivism’s target was the didactic, chalk and talk pedagogy which treated students, no matter how bright, as mere vessels to be filled. Information itself has become a collateral victim of the counter-attack.

Still, the slur has persisted. Factual knowledge and content-filled curricula have been set successfully against a vision of student-centred discovery learning based on constructivist epistemology; a compound construct that is supposed to have infected education and dragged down standards. Opponents are caricatured as liberals who lowered the bar, replacing demanding knowledge-based curricula with wishy-washy relativistic models of negotiated learning, celebrating the undermining of authority. In the eyes of the factual fundamentalists, sixties progressivism has segued into the 21st-century skills agenda.

By a Manichean sleight of hand, it was even possible to cast the world in terms of two opposed camps: knowledge versus skills – skills being seen euphemistically as the agents of dilution, giving in to lowest common denominator attempts to level the playing field by giving time over to directionless, content-less project-based cross-curricular ‘learning’. By a strange elision, progressive educationalists became the enemies of promise, selling out less advantaged students, those less immersed in cultural capital.

Except that this is all figment, not fact.

Factual knowledge, like patriotism, was never the exclusive domain of the Right. Knowledge has long been the ally of emancipation, transformative not just of individuals but also of societies. The auto-didacts of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knew this. Working-class men, and the pioneering advocates of equal educational opportunities for women of all classes, knew this. Successive generations of migrants to these shores have known this.

Facts are not reactionary. An emancipatory curriculum is not centred on skills, but on facts, on information – and on learning what to do with it. It is demanding, because it is effective. It is based on what educationist Michael Young calls “powerful knowledge”. In a democracy, everyone has a right to knowledge – the knowledge necessary to make reasoned judgements. In a meritocracy, everyone should have the right to the same building blocks of knowledge.

No single political or educational grouping has a monopoly on the importance of facts, of knowledge narrowly defined. Rather than ceding the territory of knowledge and buying still more stock in free-standing ‘skills’, those who share a broad and balanced vision of transformative, emancipatory liberal education should fight to reclaim facts and knowledge, and not shy away from hard and demanding content in curriculum.

So between the vacuous “know-nothing” claims of connectivism, and the Gradgrindian slog of hard-core reductionists, there is a land of liberal learning to be conquered anew by each generation, a land in which knowing how to find things is a skill; but knowing things is a human right.

Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust


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