‘Technology in the classroom has the potential to bring an end to the knowledge v skills divide’

The development of techniques such as flipped learning takes us towards a future where many of education’s dichotomies will be rendered false, writes TES Global’s chief education adviser

Jim Knight

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What ever happened to listening to both sides of the argument? How can you win the argument if you can’t state your opponent’s case coherently?

This weekend I was shocked to read about an NUS officer's “no platforming” of Peter Tatchell because of the consequences of his belief in freedom of speech. This latest demonstration of the rise of the echo chamber made me reflect on the education debate generally and how guilty I may be of not listening to the whole conversation.

I remember a Radio 4 programme in the Autumn 2012 presented by Fran Abrams called the School of Hard Facts. They included interviews with ED Hirsch and, among others, Nick Gibb, who was between jobs as schools minister at the time. It also included a great quote from Sir Michael Barber.

“The road to hell in education is paved with false dichotomies,” he said. “If you think of knowledge as two aspects: knowing what, knowing content, knowing information about history or literature or whatever or mathematics for that matter and then also, knowing how, how to do something. So take Pythagoras' theorem and is that knowledge or skills? Well actually it’s knowledge because you don’t know how the theorem works, but it’s skills, because unless you can actually apply it in real situations it’s not very useful.”

Traditional and progressive

I am an advocate of more project-based learning and less knowledge acquisition. This is in sharp contrast to one of my successors, Conservative schools minister Nick Gibb. However, although we disagree, I know that he cares deeply about improving education and has taken considerable time to think it through. There is, I think, a mutual respect, even though I believe Nick is wrong.

In the context of this debate, is it possible to have both the more traditional knowledge acquisition and more collaborative problem-based learning.

I now believe that we can have our cake and eat it – or maybe our pancake and eat it – thanks to flipped learning.

“Flipped” learning used to be called pre-learning. The idea that learners should do some work prior to coming to class is nothing new. However we can now do things that were previously inconceivable thanks to technology. 

Teachers can easily use free platforms like Google Classroom. They can embed content from places like TES Resources, they can include YouTube videos of themselves or others imparting the knowledge, and now they can also add summative assessment. All this can be set as pre-learning homework so that class time can be used for more applied, often collaborative and problem-based learning.

Mathsflip programme adds up

Chemistry teachers, Jon Bergman and Aaron Sams, pioneered this approach in Colorado. It has now been used at scale at Shirelands Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, West Midlands, and in neighbouring primary schools. The results are the subject of an imminent Education Endowment Foundation study, but the data is spectacular.

The Mathsflip programme for primary is working. Intervention schools had much larger increases in Sats attainment across levels 4 to 6 and are now performing comfortably above the national average, by comparison with the control group.

These results should be no surprise. If home study time is higher stakes, it is much more likely to be completed. If having an enjoyable class means doing the knowledge acquisition at home, then learners will do it. The result is more time for effective learning. It also allows teachers more flexibility in how to use class time so they can differentiate better.

Listening to both sides of a debate is helpful. It not only makes it easier to win the argument but sometimes it means you learn something. With the knowledge v skills debate it maybe that technology has moved the goalposts. What was impossible may now be possible and pancakes can be eaten all year round!

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former schools minister. He tweets at @jimpknight

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