In a bitterly disappointing turn of events, Mark Scott, secretary of the New South Wales department of education, has expressed scepticism about imparting knowledge to students and has instead focused his attention on the nonexistent general skills of critical thinking and creativity.
This comes at a time when New South Wales is reviewing its curriculum and so I now have little hope that my submission, and the submissions of others who are familiar with the relevant cognitive science, will be heeded.
What I cannot understand is that Scott’s comments are completely at odds with recent arguments made by Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, about the importance of disciplinary knowledge. Surely, Scott must be aware of Finkel’s views and yet he has made no attempt to counter or rebut them. Instead, Scott simply seems to be rehashing the kinds of platitudes you hear at the worst education conferences.
Scott frames his comments in terms of assessment. Assessing knowledge is easy, he claims, but assessing critical thinking is hard and still a few years away (it’s always a few years away). He worries that this shifts the focus too much on knowledge.
But assessing critical thinking skills is really easy. Simply ask a student what caused the First World War or why it is that the world took prompt action on reducing CFC emissions but not on climate change.
And that’s where the problem becomes apparent. You cannot divorce critical thinking from disciplinary knowledge. You need to know a lot of stuff in order think critically about it. It is daft to set these up in opposition. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham suggests, a child can think critically about something she knows about and a trained scientist can fail to think critically about something she does not know about.
The same is true for creativity. You cannot write a new symphony without a little familiarisation with musical notation, old symphonies and so on. Well, maybe you could give it a go, but if we define creativity in the way Sir Ken Robinson does as, “the process of having original ideas that have value,” then we might be sceptical of the value of a symphony written without such knowledge.
There is simply no generic skill of critical thinking or creativity that you can unplug from one context and plug into a different one. Instead, both are better seen as elements of expert performance in a given field.
Any generic test of critical thinking skills will therefore either be invalid or it will end up testing general knowledge. We have seen this before when the OECD developed a test of ‘collaborative problem solving’ and, surprise surprise, the countries that did better on the reading, maths and science PISA tests also did better on this one.
I think one reason that the myth of generic skills still exists is that it flatters a certain class of people into thinking they possess them. A politician who has never worked in the electricity industry feels confident to make pronouncements on energy policy by deploying critical thinking skills. Yet time and again we have seen that when people transfer from one area of expertise to another, they are capable of making horrible decisions and the most basic errors.
A New South Wales curriculum based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of cognitive science is not a good outcome for anyone involved. Please stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott.