In an article for the Times Educational Supplement, Dr. Mary Bousted, a leader of the National Education Union in the UK, makes a number of arguments that are critical of the education system in England and that promote ’21st century skills’. The first notable claim is about the priorities of other countries:
“Countries that have been lauded by England’s education ministers because of their high rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league tables are now moving away from narrowly academic curriculums.”
What exactly does this prove? If these countries have gained strong results in the past then that is because of what they have done in the past. If they have now decided to change their priorities then that may make their education systems better or worse. Whatever they decide to do in the future cannot possibly be responsible for how they have performed in the past. My own prediction is that moving away from a focus on academic performance, if that is what they actually do, will degrade their academic performance (as measured by tests such as PISA).
Dr. Bousted’s piece also contains something a contradiction. She suggests:
“I am not supporting a curriculum based on skills without knowledge. Nor am I advocating the death of subjects.”
She then approvingly quotes the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):
“Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively in novel situations, and about thinking across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines. If everyone can search for information on the internet, the rewards now come from what people can do with that knowledge.”
I suppose it is possible to promote thinking across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines while not advocating the death of subjects, but it certainly degrades the role of subject boundaries. However, if you really think ‘education is no longer about reproducing content knowledge’, that everyone can ‘search for information on the internet’ and that rewards now come ‘from what people can do with that knowledge’ then I don’t think you can really claim to be in favour of a knowledge curriculum at all. Firstly, you must agree with the OECD’s conflation of information with knowledge when they are clearly not the same thing. Then, if you accept the idea that anyone can search for knowledge on the internet, the curriculum must presumably be redesigned around some other objective, as the OECD suggests. What is the case for teaching knowledge if this is what you think?
The OECD are clearly wrong about knowledge, as E. D. Hirsch has eloquently argued. Unfortunately, the OECD are wrong about a lot of things in education and so the idea that something is true because the OECD say it is true is a pretty weak argument.
Take memorisation, for example. As I have previously demonstrated on this blog, the OECD devised a strange way of trying to measure students’ tendency to use memorisation in maths. Their measure did not use a Likert scale as is standard in these kinds of studies and this raises its own validity problems. When you run the numbers, the OECD’s eccentric measure of memorisation does not correlate in any way with maths performance. What are we meant to conclude from this? Nevertheless, Dr. Bousted rehearses the OECD party line that, “England comes top of the international league table for rote memorisation,” as if that means something.
Finally, there is a hidden assumption. Dr. Bousted frames her question as a choice between teaching knowledge alone and teaching knowledge as well as 21st century skills (and/or facilitating enquiry). Zealots, she suggests, wish to teach only knowledge, whereas reasonable people can see the need to teach both.
This argument places knowledge and 21st century skills on an equal footing. Yet the basis for them is quite different. Knowledge is an extremely robust construct that we can assess in a myriad of different ways. Nobody could plausibly argue that knowledge does not exist. And yet there are many questions to raise about 21st century skills. Firstly, we don’t really know how to assess them; something that calls into question whether they do represent actual skills. Secondly, 21st century skills such as critical thinking seem more like expert performance in a particular subject area. As Dan Willingham explains, small children can sometimes manage to think critically and yet trained scientists can sometimes fail to think critically. The main factor seems to be familiarity with the content area that we are asking them to think critically about. Finally, 21st century skills such as problem solving may not be susceptible to training – to the extent that these abilities are general, we are born to acquire them already and to the extent that they are context specific, we are best to learn them in that context in the standard way.
To place these skills on an equal footing with knowledge, we would need to demonstrate that they exist, that they can be improved by a form of training that is different to the standard tasks that schools already deploy in the purpose of teaching knowledge, and that these forms of training represent viable approaches that schools can deploy. Despite plenty of OECD waffle, none of this has been demonstrated.
It is equivalent to saying that being a doctor shouldn’t just be about making people better, it should also be about making people taller and better looking. After all, being tall and good-looking is related to economic and social success…
Off you go, doctors.