The Staircase

My grandfather was a joiner. He made window frames, doors, bookshelves and staircases. Of these, the staircases were the most difficult because each represented a unique problem, depending upon how the house had been designed. He would pull out a cigarette, take a few drags on it and the solution would come to him. Not that I am advocating smoking. Even though he quit, smoking eventually killed my grandfather.

I find it interesting that nobody ever taught him how to problem-solve or how to be creative. And yet he managed this nonetheless. In fact, I reckon humans have been solving problems for quite some time. Indeed, we seem to be pre-programmed with a problem-solving strategy known as ‘means-end analysis’. Contrast this with reading. We are not born with a strategy for reading and so we need to be taught how to do it. Indeed, for the major part of human history, most people never learnt how to do it.

The principle of parsimony, otherwise known as Occam’s razor, is often expressed as ‘the simplest solution is the best one.’ You could call it a ‘solution evaluating strategy’ if you like. I prefer a more arcane wording of the principle; entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. Imagine that I leave a football in the back yard over night. When I wake the next morning, I see that it has moved. Perhaps the wind moved it? Or perhaps elves moved it? The first explanation is better because it does not involve invoking a new entity – elves. Instead, it relies on an entity that is already known – the wind. And yet, like Bertrand Russell’s teapot, orbiting out there between the earth and mars, I cannot prove that the elves don’t exist.

I think that there are potentially many elves and orbital teapots in education. One of these might be the notion of teaching problem-solving as a general kind of skill. Whilst we all possess the means-end analysis strategy, there is little evidence that we can be taught other such strategies that generalise across different kinds of problems. Solving a maths problem may well just be different to designing a staircase. And what of critical thinking and creativity? Do these generalise and can they be taught? There is evidence to suggest that they are more akin to properties of expertise within a specific area rather than generalisable skills.

I often hear or read comments that are something like this: NAPLAN tests only assess a narrow range of skills and if we focus on these then we may lose sight of equally important objectives.

Let’s examine this. NAPLAN tests assess whether children can read, write and do basic maths. I think these things are quite important. You certainly wouldn’t want children going through school and not learning to read, no matter how creative they were. Would you?

And reading definitely does exist and definitely can be taught. So this is a good thing to aim at. Perhaps when we have mastered teaching all children reading, writing and maths then we can worry about assessing these other things. But I don’t think we’ve done that yet and so perhaps these areas should rightly be a bit of a focus.

However, I would wish to make clear what that would look like. For instance, there is now a wealth of evidence that such skills should be explicitly taught. A new study by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in NSW is just the latest to review the research and come to this conclusion.

And a focus on reading should not lead to three hours a day spent on reading strategies. Yes, reading is more than just decoding print; it is also about comprehension. However, comprehension is best built by developing a broad knowledge of the world so that when you read something you can bring this knowledge to bear on it and understand what it means. This is more than just learning vocabulary; you need to understand the allusions and analogies in a text; you need to be able to fill in the gaps and make inferences. Reading comprehension strategies have some value but they cannot compensate for weak world knowledge.

Instead, we need a full and vibrant curriculum from the very start of school; a curriculum that includes English, history, science, the arts and a mathematics program; all explicitly taught and appropriately sequenced. The attributes that we tend to think of as critical thinking and problem-solving will gradually grow within these subject areas. We can encourage such growth as we, piece-by-piece and block-by-block, attempt to construct a curriculum with a clear objective; to bridge the space between an inquisitive child and a fulfilled and articulate adult, engaged in the world.

Like building a staircase.



2 Comments on “The Staircase”

  1. Love the reference to Russell’s orbiting teapot. It was reading about this teapot that dispelled any belief I had at the time in God (or elves, for that matter). The teapot is still regularly invoked to counter claims that can’t be substantiated by good evidence. And, Bertram Russell’s Best is still a cracking read!

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