One day, I will visit Michaela Community School in London, the trailblazing Free School that employs explicit teaching, a knowledge rich curriculum and a strong behaviour policy to gain outstanding results with inner city students. Chatting to Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress, for my podcast, I was reminded of the reason why schools like Michaela are so important.
There are those who would have you believe that, traditionally, education is about stuffing kids full of facts, like some kind of facts-o-matic machine. This is undesirable because we don’t want students who are good at pub quizzes, we want students who can think critically and creatively, as if these capacities are somehow unrelated.
This is why the current review of The Australian Curriculum is obsessing over the proper role of the curriculum’s supposedly ‘general’ capabilities, including ‘critical and creative thinking’. We may see some worthwhile progress if these capabilities become more embedded into subject areas, but the mere existence of them is a big raspberry blown in the face of any teacher of history or science or literature. The assumption is that traditional subjects do not teach critical thinking and that bureaucratic means are required to shovel it in.
The facts do not support such a contention. Anyone presenting a dichotomy between subject area knowledge and critical thinking or creativity needs to properly support such a claim. The available evidence actually suggests that learning traditional subjects generates measurable improvements in critical thinking without the need for any bolt-ons. This is unsurprising because in order to think critically about something, you need to know a lot about it. Facts are not the end-point of education, but they make an excellent start.
And yet, locked in their impermeable paradigms, all exits covered by unfalsifiable logic, everyone from college professors to generalist pundits – who have spent a total of about five minutes thinking about education – will continue to claim that we need a revolution in the way education is imagined in order to better develop critical thinking skills.
Which is why Michaela is important. “When you talk to our kids, my God are they opinionated!” Explains Katharine on the podcast. This is no surprise because these students know things and knowing things is a key prerequisite to having worthwhile opinions.
Living proof cannot easily be explained away.