You too can learn to learn

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Schools need a second curriculum based on the "knowledge arts," according to the latest US thinking skills guru to hit Scotland.

Teachers were given some insight into a new vision for improving the way they do their job last week at the most recent event organised by the Tapestry partnership - increasingly important as attendance at its conferences and seminars can be used to build credits for achieving chartered teacher status.

David Perkins, senior professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told his audience bluntly: "Much of what is taught is not worth knowing."

With a background in maths, Professor Perkins went on: "We all have our personal favourite in this regard, and mine is the quadratic equation, which is a particularly useless piece of knowledge - for most people."

Working at Harvard with Howard Gardner, the acclaimed originator of "multiple intelligences", Professor Perkins outlined four problems facing schools as they struggle increasingly to select what to teach:

* knowing what is worth knowing - "the problem of the curriculum";

* "really knowing," which requires understanding as well as knowledge;

* acting on knowledge, focusing on the gap between ideas and action;

* keeping up with what is known.

Professor Perkins, who held a masterclass with an invited audience during his two-day Scottish teach-in, said knowledge arts is the missing link between the first and second curriculum because it is about "learning to learn".

It focused on the creation of knowledge, communicating knowledge, organising knowledge and acting on knowledge, he suggested, alongside skills such as understanding, thinking and decision-making.

"It's the second curriculum that energises the first curriculum and makes it relevant," Professor Perkins said.

He advocated this as an "infiltration" process, adding: "I'm not suggesting we should do away with the first curriculum. It does need a little editing, but not supplanting."

Professor Perkins criticised the "possessive" way knowledge and understanding is presented in official language. "It's regarded as being about grasping something or apprehending something, summed up in the phrase 'you either get it or you don't'."

By contrast, he said, individuals have a "performance" rather than a possessive view of what and how they learn and how well they are doing - whether it is tap-dancing or desktop publishing.

Professor Perkins suggested this perception of performance held the key to improved learning "because it can help learners take an action-based, ideas-oriented attitude to knowledge and understanding, which will make them better learners".

He said these features were part of the knowledge arts for learners, but teaching for understanding was also a knowledge art for educators themselves.

Professor Perkins pupils' progress should be tracked by ongoing assessment - "early and often, and for learning not grading". Assessment at the end of a topic is far too late, he added. His message was that a good curriculum should generate rich topics. "It is easier to teach for understanding about the Boston tea party than about colonial tax policies in the 18th century, because the Boston tea party dramatises issues around colonial tax policies," he said. These approaches go beyond the good teaching which already takes place in many classrooms, Professor Perkins commented. It is "more and better". This was necessary because teachers do not normally press their pupils to think beyond what they already know, he said. And carefully selected topics and goals for understanding are often missing from lessons, as is ongoing assessment to provide feedback on what has been learned.


Academics at Harvard have devised what Professor Perkins called four "big ideas" which should guide Teaching of Understanding (ToFU for aficionados).

These require teachers to ask four straightforward questions:

* what do I want my learners to understand?

* what do I want learners to understand about the topic?

* what will they have to do to come to an understanding?

* how will I know they are understanding?

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