I’m fed up of people who should know better saying they’re bored with the false dichotomy of skills versus knowledge. The knowledge vs skills debate is always worth having because it conceals a more fundamental disagreement (a real dichotomy, if you will) about what’s most important.

Let’s agree that no one is actually advocating that no knowledge is taught. I’m sure this is true. But saying that knowledge is ‘just a foundation for higher order thinking’ isn’t good enough either.
This picture from Joe Kirby’s blog sums it up for me:
knowledgeiceberg2Analysis, application, evaluation and all the rest are the merely the visible tip of what we know, the product of our knowledge. Quite literally, we can’t think about anything we don’t know. Any attempt to suggest that imagination is the ability to think about stuff we don’t know is mistaken. If we try to think about something unknown to us we rely on analogies, symbols and metaphors using things we do know.  It’s not good enough to say that, “Yes of course knowledge is important” in one breath and then bang on about the primacy of so-called ’21st century skills’ in the next.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with SOLO taxonomy before realising that it often does more harm than good. The multi-structural stage of the taxonomy – what we know – is often viewed as something to move on from as soon as possible. All too often, hurrying students from ‘multi-structural’ – knowing some stuff – to ‘higher order thinking’ is used to prove pupils’ ‘progress’ and devalues the fact that a relational construct is only as useful as the quality of content knowledge. This is a pattern repeated in mark schemes from KS2 to undergraduate levels – pupils are expected to see relationships and synthesise ideas at every stage of education – the difference is how much we know and how complex this knowledge is.

The problem with Bloom’s, SOLO and all these sort of things is that they implicitly marginalise the role of knowledge in thinking and understanding. Viewing analysis as the tip of the iceberg is more useful in that it’s more intellectually honest to suggest that analysis will always depend on the quality of what is known.