I’ve been having a bit of think this week.

Firstly I read Daisy Christodoulou’s post on Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. She points out that Hirsch, oft-condemned for being the darling of ideologues like Mickey Gove is, in his own words ‘a quasi socialist’ and big mates with Diane Ravitch (who is nobody’s fool.)

Then I listened to the hugely entertaining Jonathan Lear give an excellent presentation at Independent Thinking’s Big Day Out in Bristol on Friday and like any speaker worth their salt he got me thinking. His point, if I may make so bold as to attempt a precis, is that we limit children’s learning if we set out to teach them a concept in a clear and focussed way. His rallying cry is… vagueness.

Like Jim Smith’s redefinition of ‘lazy’, Jonathan wants us to unpick and unpack the benefits of being ambiguous, a bit ill-defined and somewhat nebulous. Got it? He illustrated with the use of Little Miss Sunshine who, when both her hands were held, completed an electrical circuit and lit up. When this phenomenon is demonstrated to children, particularly primary school children, they want to know how. What on earth, they wonder, is going on? His point was that had he simply said, ‘right boys and girls, today we’re going to learn about electrical circuits,’ something would have been lost. The nascent curiosity of their young minds would have been, if not crushed, certainly restricted.

Crack team of education consultants

Crack team of education consultants

So far so good. I’m all for harnessing students’ curiosity and tricking them, á la Hywel Roberts, into learning accidentally. But then he asked us to consider why students seem to become less curious and excited about learning as they trudge their way through the education system. Is it, as Ken Robinson suggests that we teachers flatten it out of them with our dull, quotidian lessons and our soulless reliance on text books? Jonathan referenced a study of divergent thinking (The ability to interpret a question in many different ways and the ability to see many different answers to a question.) undertaken by NASA and used by SKR to make his point in Out of Their Minds. It goes a little something like this: Most people are able to come up with 10 to 15 uses for a paperclip. People who are good at divergent thinking would come up with around 200.  Unfortunately, our capacity for divergent thinking deteriorates with age. This longitudinal study of kindergarten children measured 98% of them at genius level in divergent thinking. Five years later, when they were aged 8 to 10 years, those at genius level had dropped to 50%. After another five years, the number of divergent thinking geniuses had fallen further still. Robinson argues that the main intervention that these children have had is education, a conveyor-belt education that tells them that there is one answer at the back of the book but don’t look and don’t copy.

But is this really true? Have a look at this:

Correlation is not causation by Glen Gilchrist

Clearly, the decline in piracy is to blame for the problems we’re experiencing with climate change. Any right thinking human being can see that the only viable solution to the likely annihilation of the planet is to finance privateers to harry world shipping. Those pesky Somalians are actually doing us a favour.

Except, of course, that this is nonsense. It should be obvious that any link between piracy and global warming is the most arrant and wrongheaded pap. Correlation does not mean causation.

So, could Ken be equally wrong about what NASA’s data reveals? Could it not perhaps reveal that as we get older we dismiss the idea of a giant 50 foot paper clip as ridiculous. How could it ever be used to clip paper? And it would be hopeless for getting the battery out of your iPhone! The less we know, the wilder our misconceptions about the world. As we know more we restrict ourselves to the most likely solutions to problems because this is the most efficient way of using our brains. Our divergent thinking happens in microseconds allowing us to converge on sensible, useful solutions. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe pirates did keep the temperature down.

And then Jonathan demonstrated the uselessness of teaching children knowledge by asking us to look up the date of Mozart’s birth. Predictably, an audience member was able to retrieve this information from the internet in a little over 5 seconds. You see? Why bother knowing anything – you can always look it up. Or, as ED Hirsch asks, can you? Now, I can’t speak for cognitive science but some things just make sense: the more you know, the easier it is to fit new concepts and information into your mental map. Hirsch makes the point that “Any teacher of science who fails to offer concrete experiences that manifest the feel and heft of things is missing a big opportunity for helping students gain conceptual insight. Any teacher of early math who doesn’t challenge students with real-world problems that require a translation back and forth between the physical world and the abstract relations of math is leaving out an essential element of good math teaching.” Or to put it another way, “The best teaching methods do not have to be coupled with an anti-fact or anti-academic mentality.”

The only way you can use the internet to substitute for learning knowledge is if you have massively low expectations. Try looking up this one : what would have happened if Mozart had been born in 1450? Or, Is Mozart better than Picasso? Why does the Dies Irae movement of the “Requiem Mass in D Minor make me feel a bit tingly?

I’m waiting…

So, why can’t we bring together the awe and wonder of some of the marvellous progressive thinkers with a bit of old fashioned academic rigour? Why have the two come to be seem (from both sides of the gulf) as mutually exclusive? The current vogue for SOLO taxonomy is, in my mind, representative of this division. I gave a seminar at the Big Day Out (which after a conversation with Phil Beadle I wished I’d retitled as SOLO – shit or not?) which tried to bridge the divide. If you don’t believe in the fundamental importance of knowledge then SOLO just ain’t gonna work! SOLO, more than anything else has got me to reconsider the importance of knowledge within our curriculum. In my haste to take students on a journey to becoming extended abstract thinkers I neglected to concentrate on the quality of what students knew. One of the delegates at Friday’s event pointed out that this taxonomy of educational outcomes while conceived to improve the quality of thinking at the post-graduate level is equally applicable to the National Curriculum levels of Key Stage 2. You would however hope that students had acquired a bit of knowledge in the intervening years and it is these ‘mere facts’ which improve the quality of our thinking. Quite simply, if I know more than you in a particular area then my thinking on that topic is more refined and nuanced than yours. I’m sorry but it just is.

As Sir Francis Bacon said back in 1597 (Get me – I looked it up!) , ‘Knowledge is power.’

Jonathan finished his presentation by asking whether the world would be a better place if it were run by five year olds. My first thought was that it would be a lot messier and more concerned with cake and Ribena. But having watched the last in the latest series of The Thick Of It, I’m not so surely they could make it any worse!

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Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?
Is SOLO a waste of time?