It's not how you know, but what you know

11th July 2014 at 01:00

Lately I've been reading the works of US education guru E D Hirsch, nodding vigorously in agreement and bookmarking all over the place as he promotes "cultural literacy" and highlights problems associated with the "knowledge deficit". He speaks the truth of my experience.

Every day, colleagues hold forth about pupils who think Spain is an island or wonder where cheese comes from. Perhaps you have blithely referred to the Garden of Eden or the Falklands, and looked up to see blank faces and South Park eyes. Recently, "crucifix" appeared in a reading exercise and it took some explaining.

They just don't know. How could they, when everyone - even some educators - flatters them that they don't need knowledge but only how to find it? What use is that when you're at a party with nothing to offer in conversation? "Excuse me folks, but hold everything you're saying until I search Wikipedia for a minute so I can make a contribution." No, the knowledge needs to be in you already.

But let us not be too Gradgrindian. Of course I want pupils to learn skills, of course I want to fill learning intentions with "How to..." statements. And yet, what if we taught students only skills? What if I taught a child literacy skills without giving her any knowledge? Could I even teach skills without passing on some knowledge at the same time? And even if I could, by the time the student turned 16 would her skills prepare her for the world? I doubt it.

So I'm running a "knowledge agenda"; not quite pouring facts from a large jug into open crania, just looking to trickle them in. If Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence allows for space and flexibility in learning, it will allow - where ignorance shows itself - for digression into blunt factuality. I've even made corridor displays: a map of Glasgow with a list of its main roads (pupils need to know where they are, and routes out), a map of Europe with a list of its countries (the Iberian peninsula is prominent), even a Reader's Digest grid of the distances between places such as Inverness and Hartlepool.

The problem is, what is my next move? How do I discover what they need to discover, so that I can put it on display?

Gerry McLean is a teacher of English at Castlemilk High School in Glasgow

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