Knowledge is only power if you can apply it

27th July 2018 at 00:00
Teaching children how to think, discuss and make collective decisions is at least as important as filling their brains with facts, argues Rachel Lopiccolo

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had that moment where we have said “What was the point in learning algebra/the periodic table/(insert your own gripe here)?” because we’ve not needed it since GCSE.

Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important – it is power, some might say – but without the capability to use it, the confidence to make decisions with it and to apply that knowledge to ever-changing situations, have we actually taught our students anything?

It’s the opportunities that we provide for children to apply their knowledge, grow in confidence and develop life skills that will enable future generations to succeed. So how, as educators, can we do this?

1. Let your class set the agenda

The school I teach in developed its own curriculum several years ago and received a Learning Excellence Award for this work in 2011. We had to adapt our approach after the new national curriculum was introduced a couple of years later, but the heart of our thinking remains the same: get the children involved. Each class helps to create a mindmap plan for five topics that are chosen by the teachers, then the classes discuss, vote on and plan their own final topic of the year.

We don’t simply leave them to debate and plan while we catch up on yet more marking, but instead see it as a real opportunity for them to learn and apply skills of communication and decision-making while we act as the facilitators in the processes involved. Essentially, we are teaching them how to think, how to discuss, how to make collective decisions – and motivating them in their learning at the same time.

2. There needn’t be a right answer

A key focus of our primary education system seems to be on the recall of information for Sats, rather than on children being able to explore, philosophically, areas where there is no right or wrong answer. A strong democracy needs citizens who can question, discuss and make decisions away from hyperbole and without fear of speaking out.

Ian Gilbert’s Little Book of Thunks and the Philosophy 4 Children approach ( are great starting points that enable children to discuss, debate and grow in confidence in areas that won’t be measured by a test but will stand them in good stead in the real world.

So if elephants ruled the world, what changes would you see? What is the main subject of Edvard Munch’s The Scream thinking and what do the people behind him think of him?

More and more, it seems, children lack the confidence to suggest an answer to such questions, worried that it might be wrong or not what a Sats marker has been instructed to accept. And yet the discussions and ideas that come from activities like this can lead to some wonderful critical thinking – and, if we have to be hung up on curriculum objectives, can help to develop inference, too.

3. Enable creativity

We can’t hide completely from the boxes that need to be ticked, but to shrink the art of creative writing down to a “slow write”, where pupils must include certain features in certain places in order to reach an expectation, removes from children the opportunity to try things out, experiment and demonstrate their own flair.

4. Give children real responsibility

Opportunities to develop real-life skills don’t have to be confined to the classroom. The school council, for example, could have a dynamic role in exploring ideas in the wider school and the local community. Whether it is finding a way to raise money for new books or a scheme linking children with elderly people to read or sew together, let pupils take some responsibility for making such decisions and carrying out the necessary actions. Doing so will enable them to develop the transferable skills that can contribute to success later in life.

Rachel Lopiccolo is a Year 5 teacher, English and history subject leader and mentor of trainee teachers at Waddington and West Bradford CE Primary School in Lancashire

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