Recently, Linda Darling-Hammond wrote a piece for the Huffington Post to introduce her new Learning Policy Institute. Anyone who has seen with the “Shift Happens” YouTube clip of 2008 will be familiar with many of the arguments. Yet these arguments are profoundly misguided and, given the influence that the Learning Policy Institute is likely to exert in the U.S. and the rest of the world, it is important to highlight exactly why.
Powerful knowledge is not information
Michael Young is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education in London. Having reversed his position since the early 1970s, he has developed the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. He argues that teaching this knowledge is the purpose of schools because it is not going to be acquired by simply participating in society:
“Knowledge is ‘powerful’ if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people to think in new ways. If these are some of the ‘powers’ of powerful knowledge, how might it then be distinguished from the everyday or commonsense knowledge that we all have as members of society?”
On the other hand, Darling-Hammond seems to conflate all types of knowledge with information more generally, allowing no distinction between the more or less powerful kinds. She states, “The quantity of human knowledge is exploding. According to UC Berkeley researchers, between 1999 and 2002, there was more new knowledge created in the world than in the entire history of the world preceding.”
If you follow that link, you’ll find a paper analysing, “new information contained in storage media, and heard or seen each year in information flows.” So, presumably, this would include photographs of cats and things like that. I would not class this as knowledge.
This conflation is dangerous and so is the idea that it implies that, “there is no set body of knowledge we can transmit in carefully defined dollops throughout 12 years of schooling that will fully prepare our young people to meet their futures.” I don’t think there is anything that will fully prepare young people for their futures but there are certainly some kinds of powerful knowledge that will help. These are the relatively stable facts and principles housed within the traditional subject domains; history, science, mathematics, English.
In school, we are not usually in the business of teaching cutting-edge developments that are likely to be quickly superseded unless, ironically, we go with the fashion and try to utilise the latest evanescent technology. As a physics teacher, I teach Newton’s laws of motion, for instance. In some sense, these have been superseded; they are wrong. They break down at speeds approaching the speed of light. Even so, they are still incredibly useful principles to apply at lower speeds which is pretty much all of the time. Einstein’s more complete theory of relativity is exactly that; more complete. It does not mean we have to throw Newton’s laws out. And I know of no-one who developed an understanding of relativity without mastering Newton’s laws.
It is a naive view of education; the idea that learning about something means that we accept it as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in such a way that we are not open to future revisions or developments.
I would like to ask Linda Darling-Hammond exactly when she thinks it will be the case that 2 + 2 = 4 is no longer true? When will it no longer be true that there was an ancient civilisation in Egypt that built the pyramids? Exactly when will the theory of evolution lose its relevance? We know that spellings change over time but is Darling-Hammond suggesting that the spellings of the majority of English words are likely to change in the lifetime of current school students?
Developing reified abilities
If we don’t wish to teach all this passing and transient knowledge then what should we do? Darling-Hammond has an answer; “Rather than memorizing material from static textbooks, our young people need to learn how to become analysts and investigators who can work with knowledge they themselves assemble to solve complex problems we have not managed to solve.” This involves developing reified abilities. Students need to, “think critically and creatively; solve problems, communicate and collaborate; and contribute to the improvement of their community and society.”
These abstractions are meaningless outside of a knowledge context. Daniel Willingham has observed that small children are quite capable of thinking critically about subjects that they know a lot about and yet research scientists can fail to think critically in an area outside of their domain of expertise. Willingham sadly concludes that abilities such as critical thinking cannot really be taught.
In his submission to the Australian Curriculum Review, John Sweller made a similar point about critical thinking and problem solving skills.
“It is a waste of students’ time placing these skills in a curriculum because we have evolved to acquire them without tuition. While they are too important for us not to have evolved to acquire them, insufficient domain-specific knowledge will prevent us from using them. We cannot plan a solution to a mathematics problem if we are unfamiliar with the relevant mathematics. Once we know enough mathematics, then we can plan problem solutions. Attempting to teach us how to plan or how to solve generic problems will not teach us mathematics. It will waste our time.” [my emphasis]
How people learn
Darling-Hammond points to How People Learn by Bransford et. al. as representing a large body of evidence on which we may build. I think this again highlights the significance of this book and justifies why I have tackled it a number of times.
I am dubious that How People Learn really does represent the best evidence available. To give just one example, it discusses an ‘exemplary’ mathematics teacher who, “almost never demonstrates the solution to problems.” This clearly ignores all of the evidence that we have in favour of the use of worked-examples going back at least as far as the 1980s.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, Darling-Hammond invokes performance in PISA international assessments as a reason to adopt methods that emphasise thinkiness rather than the acquisition of knowledge. In her view, the focus on “lower-level basic skills, rather than the higher-level abilities evaluated by PISA,” coupled with the inequality of the U.S. education system, is the cause of this ‘lacklustre’ performance.
I wonder whether Darling-Hammond has investigated those countries and jurisdictions that outperform the U.S. on PISA such as much of the Far East? Yes, there are cultural factors that make these comparisons problematic but, if you are going to invoke these comparisons as Darling-Hammond does, you at least need to address what other countries do. Do students in Singapore learn critical thinking skills rather than knowledge contained in textbooks? No.
Of course, Darling-Hammond might be thinking of the favoured example of Finland. A lot of people imagine this as some kid of educational nirvana. There are a couple of points worth making on Finland. Firstly, it is not what you think it is; teaching is actually quite didactic. Secondly, its PISA results have been declining since the early 2000s and this means that we would better look to what it was doing in the 1980s and 1990s rather than what it is doing now. Tim Oates has written a great paper on this. He’s also written another one that shows that high performing systems – like Singapore – make use of good-quality textbooks.
Why this matters
Despite the unimpressive U.S. performance on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, the whole world still seems to take it’s cue from U.S. education and the views of its professors and policy institutes. This is partly because of America’s cultural dominance and partly because it is such a vast system, allowing for much variation and experimentation.
It matters that an institute such as this, which is likely to be highly influential in the U.S. and across the world, is to be founded on such flawed principles.