Jumping sharks in rocket-propelled cars

When I first logged on to Twitter today, I noticed a link posted by Dylan Wiliam. The link is to an article in npj Science of Learning and it is about dumping ‘outmoded practices and mindsets’ and embracing the ‘4Cs’ of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection:

The ‘npj’ part of the journal’s name stands for ‘Nature Partner Journals‘ and so it implicitly carries the endorsement of probably the most significant scientific journal in the world. And yet the article’s arguments seem to be based mainly on beliefs:

“We believe the foundations of lifelong learning are creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection.”

“We believe children adopt different learning dispositions such as curiosity and focus that are critical for them to sustain and apply their learning.”

“We believe schools need to be enabled to fundamentally change.”

Oddly, the article begins with the cautionary tale of stuntman Kenny Power who, in 1979, attempted to jump across the 1.6 kilometre wide St Lawrence river in a rocket powered car, but who sadly only made it 15 metres. No doubt Power believed that he would get across. What he lacked was the right science.

In this case, the rocket-powered car that is going to hurtle us 15 metres into an unknown future is a package of generic ‘capacities’. Apparently, they will, “…help students move beyond just remembering ‘facts’ to help them make connections between ideas and create new ones,” proving beyond any doubt that there are researchers out their who still disparage and dismiss the value of learning knowledge.

This argument is scientifically deeply flawed for two reasons. Firstly, insomuch as these generic capacities are generic, they are largely biologically primary. That means that we have evolved to acquire them and, for typically developing students, explicit instruction in them is redundant. Yes, there are forms of critical reflection, for example, that we can learn in a history lesson that are valuable. However, these are mostly specific to the domain of history (or perhaps even history lessons). There may be a few moderately useful heuristics that will transfer to different domains such as ‘try to look at the situation from different perspectives’, but these are typically quite banal, easily and quickly taught and have limited value if you don’t have the knowledge to enact them.

Similarly, unless a student has a cognitive impairment or is a victim of childhood neglect, he or she will tend to acquire the collaboration habits of the culture they are raised in relatively effortlessly and so will not need to be taught these. Once we start to learn specific collaboration strategies relevant to particular situations, such as a team writing a scientific paper, very little will transfer to other domains.

The kind of learning that we cannot easily acquire for ourselves is biologically secondary, academic knowledge; how to read and write; knowledge of historical events and interpretations, scientific facts and concepts, methods for solving mathematical problems and so on. This is why we created schools in the first place. It is true that you can point to any one of these items of knowledge and dismissively declare that a person may live a fulfilling life without knowing it. But that misses the point. Knowledge is valuable in its accumulation. Not only is it personally enriching, it enables us to comprehend texts that would otherwise be inaccessible. You might claim that certain knowledge will not be required in the future, but if you do then I want to see your crystal ball. The future is fundamentally unpredictable and our best guide to what will be useful in the future is what has been useful in the past. These are the key, slowly changing concepts that form our school curricula: That which has endured.

After I saw Wiliam’s tweet, I was going to let the article pass. After all, Wiliam’s comment was apt and we see ten or fifteen such articles per day, often from the U.S. stables of EducationNext or Mind/Shift. I cannot rebut all of them – the pipe is too wide and the flow too voluminous. But then, to my dismay, I realised that the authors were from the University of Sydney and that they are trialling their ideas in Australian Schools.

And so I decided that a refutation was needed, particularly when the ideas in this article are presented as science. Students deserve better. They deserve an education based on evidence rather than fashionable rhetoric.


6 thoughts on “Jumping sharks in rocket-propelled cars

  1. Hey, I have a lot of respect for new stuff from Oz, especially words like Bonza (I appreciate that this is “so last century”). The new one “BigDry” has a similar cadence – its obvious straight away whereas “jumping the shark” always has me thinking: Nope could not work it out via the context unlike say #elephantintheroom, I think.

      1. OK, THANKS for the link to excellent pic & explanation; I recollect the Happy Days story analogy from a while back when I first heard this term and as implied above did not get the idea (fully) then.

  2. Hi Greg,

    To clarify, the “npj Science of Learning Community” (https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/) is NOT a peer-reviewed journal, hence our posts are not subjected to peer review. They are, however, vetted by our Community Editor, whom I believe you’ve been in contact with.

    The Community is designed to be interactive and host cross-disciplinary discussions (sometimes controversial), allowing us to explain the findings of neuroscientists, psychologists, and education researchers in understanding how the brain learns to education practitioners and the general public.

    The academic journal itself, “npj Science of Learning” (granted, I can see how this might be confusing to people), can be found at https://www.nature.com/npjscilearn/, and all articles are subject to rigorous rounds peer review, as per Nature Research editorial standards, before they are accepted or jected by the Editor-in-Chief, Professor Pankaj Sah (http://www.uq.edu.au/about/director-qbi). The audience for the journal is primarily researchers in the various fields that encompass “Science of Learning” / “Brain Mind & Education” / “Educational Neuroscience”.

    The Community is a place to discover and share knowledge, learn from the npj Science of Learning journal editors and authors, and collaborate to advance the science of learning. As you are a Member of the Community, you have the ability to leave a comment under any of the posts to share your thoughts and generate a discussion. Please ensure you are logged in to the Community first, otherwise posting a comment will not be possible. Should you require any assistance with this, please feel free to reach out to myself or Gabrielle Ahern (@SaltyWaveBlue). If you wanted to become one of our Contributors, we would also welcome that.


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