Mary Bousted and 21st century skills

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.


8 thoughts on “Mary Bousted and 21st century skills

  1. ijstock says:

    This is precisely the kind of thing that makes me despair of the education system. That a normally sensible, moderate person can still spout such stuff makes me wonder what has happened to a more grounded world view. 21st C skills are discredited as a notion because no one knows – or can know – what they actually are, as opposed to 20th C or any other skills. As you say, most of them appear to be just mastery in other, more conventional forms. And worst of all, such claims seem to imply ignorance or rejection of all those people arguing the contrary in a perfectly considered, coherent way. I dispute the fact that we can flip the nature of learning at will; we might be able as a society to change what we *value* – but learning itself is the same, age-old process that it always was, not a mutatable social construct.

  2. It seems the belief among educationalists that knowledge is something that can be just acquired as required, from sources such as the internet and applied expertly in different contexts, is widespread. The fact that expert knowledge in a discipline consists of layer upon layer of simple to more complex ideas that takes a lot of time to master seems to have evaded them. Thus an individual who knows how to think critically or creatively can move across domains of knowledge, making contributions and even creating new knowledge. It is very superficial thinking and we are plagued with it in education. Great article, Greg.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    Let’s have pity on poor Mary Bousted–after all, she must know that the ideology that she holds dear no longer convinces anyone outside the citadel. Heavens only knows what consolation her salary brings–in 2011, it was £108,000 plus a pension contribution of £27,000–but I sure as hell would find it meagre compensation for finding that the idols I hold dear are but a hollow sham.

    As Dame Warnock put it,

    “Metaphysical systems do not yield, as a rule, to frontal attack. Their odd property of being demonstrable, only so to speak from within, confers on them a high resistance to attack from outside. The onslaughts of critics to whom, as likely as not, their strange tenets are nearly unintelligible, are apt to seem to those enshrined inside, misdirected and irrelevant. Such systems are more vulnerable to ennui than disproof. They are citadels, much shot at perhaps, but never taken by storm, which are quietly discovered one day to be no longer inhabited.”

  4. Adam Porter says:

    So often, good intentions from non-experts are ironically are scuppered in practice by their lack of understanding of the fundamentals of teaching and learning; confusing the desired outcomes of an education with the ‘ingredients’ and practice required to get there.

    I’ve never seen it suggested that we do not desire a citizenry who take initiative, can research, think critically, work in teams… but the notion that the way to achieve that objective is to ‘teach’ these skills directly or replace deliberate practice of the parts by mimicking the whole is just ungrounded and ill-informed.

    Even if we ignore the non-transferability of most of these skills, as Greg and others have pointed out so many times, novices and experts think differently; we can’t simply make students mimic expert practice and assume they are picking up the things that make it expert practice! I like the steak metaphor that @informed_edu uses to describe this in terms of developing expert teaching practice

    “I cook steak the way that the last TV program showed me and I think it was someone like Heston Blumenthal… …I think I take that if I remember rightly I take the meat out early from the fridge and because I apparently was supposed to do that; I don’t know why but you are; and then you heat the pan really hot and again I don’t know why… that’s what Heston said. …broadly speaking my steak meat tastes all right but I would classify myself as a cooking moron really. I just kind of copy what other people tell me to do. Now what does an actual chef do? Well, they’re a little bit different because they might go through some of the same MO but fundamentally there are a few big differences. First of all that when you talk to a chef about a piece of meat they’ll start saying “which bit of the cowl did it come from?” “what’s the texture like?” “how much marbling is it got?” “what’s the thickness?” “how does that affect the cooking?” They’ll have so much more knowledge about what it is that they’re doing that immediately they’ll start making better judgments than I will and I don’t know why I’m making any of those judgments I’m just copying.”

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