When knowledge is just not enough

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Over the past few decades two major questions have permeated curriculum debates. The first is how much attention should we give to the transmission of knowledge, as opposed to the development of the skills involved in "learning how to learn"?

The second is the extent to which the curriculum should be discipline-based, rather than interdisciplinary.

This inevitably leads us on to a debate about methods of teaching. Should we go down the enquiry-based route or is teacher-ledlearning the way forward?

Experts might say this debate is flawed as all these things are important and they are perfectly compatible with each other. Inone sense this is true, but it downplays the practical difficulties facing those who have to make hard choices, at national level, about the construction of a curriculum and, at local level, about its conversion into schemes of work.

Attempts in England in the early 1990s to reconcile a discipline-based and knowledge-heavy national curriculum with a range of interdisciplinary cross-curricular themes collapsed under the weight of its own documentation.

Meanwhile, in France the slimming down of discipline-based programmes has led to accusations that the rigorous transmission of cultural knowledge has been replaced by what the philosopher George Steiner has described as "planned amnesia".

International schools implementing the enquiry-based interdisciplinary primary and middle years programmes of the International Baccalaureate Organisation have seen similar tensions blow up between the enthusiasts and the many teachers who fear that there is nothing to be gained by going down the interdisciplinary route.

The pressure towards the "learning how to learn" side of the curriculum comes in particular from a sharp awareness of how the traditional curriculum approach can leave some pupils profoundly unskilled.

More fundamentally, the pressure comes from a pervading intellectual mindset instinctively hostile to traditions and boundaries.

We need to move beyond such simplicities to a clearer sense of what we are trying to achieve. Enquiry-based approaches are fine as long as the purpose is not simply to produce "enquirers", but is linked to clear objectives for knowledge acquisition and the development of specific areas of conceptual understanding.

Interdisciplinary study is also essential, but only if it is done from the basis of a firm grounding in the disciplines under consideration.

One experiment in achieving a balance between the two curriculum approaches has recently become something of a cause cel bre in France. A young French literature teacher, working in one of the grimmest of Parisian suburbs, with disillusioned pupils who were mostly from North African backgrounds, has published a book of their creative writings and broadcast one of their plays. Although the exercise was highly interdisciplinary, it was based on a firm and rigorous grounding in French and classical Greek literature.

The message from this educational experiment was that we only become creative, original, enquiring problem-solvers when we have knowledgeable minds and a sense of standards that comes from a firm grounding in tradition.

Think of Joyce, Beckett, Picasso, Francis Bacon: they became artists seen as among the most innovative thinkers of the 20th century because of their meticulous induction into existing traditions and disciplines, and because of the intellectual confidence this gave them to create something new.

But the flip side of this message is also true: that knowledge by itself is not enough - it has to be applied in stimulating exploratory contexts.

It is this kind of explicit rationale for the relationship between the two sides of the curriculum that we need to be encouraging.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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