Saturday, 2 March 2013

Knowledge and skills? Isn't there more?

A good deal of talk in education divides it up into 'knowledge' and 'skills' as if a) these apparently different concepts really are different and b) these are two halves of a whole and that covers everything education needs to do.

a) Knowledge and skills are different?

Apparently so. Knowledge seems to sit in books, worksheets and websites. It's the 'what' of the curriculum. OK, the 'when' and 'where' as well! Where is Delhi? When did Henry VIII die? What is the  name of the process by which water flows from a weaker solution to a stronger solution through a semi-permeable membrane? etc etc. Skills are the tools, people say. These are the 'means' by which we get at the stacks of knowledge, they say: learning by rote, fair tests in science, comparing and contrasting, collecting evidence and the like.

From this division of education, develops the notion that you can't develop skills unless you have knowledge, so we have to work very hard throughout education passing over knowledge to children and students so that they can use the skills. The argument goes can't have the skills unless you have the knowledge. Then, still flowing from this, you can't find out if the children and students have got the knowledge unless you test them. You can't find out if they're ready to go to the next level of knowledge absorption or skills acquisition unless you test their 'knowledge-base'.

First of all, I think the division or dichotomy is false. There is no division between what we call knowledge and what we call skills. So, on the knowledge side: however we acquire knowledge requires us to be using some kind of skill, whether that's listening, discussing, researching, investigating, comparing, contrasting, drawing conclusions. If you sit in a lecture and make notes while a lecturer hands out knowledge, this is a skill. What's more, the very process by which you try to take on the knowledge is itself affecting the nature of that knowledge. So, if you are taking notes - little headings, and one, two, three bullet points underneath, that of itself becomes how the knowledge is yours. Knowledge isn't of itself naturally or essentially a heading and three bullet points. The neat display of 'facts' about a subject like the 'rise of Napoleon' or 'photosynthesis' or Gerard Manley Hopkins idea of 'inscape' may well be what is restricting finding out the truth about it.

Now, from the skills side: let's say that there are skills called 'taking notes', or a skill called 'listening and remembering' or 'coming to a conclusion'. Surely, if the word 'knowledge' has any meaning, these skills are a form of knowledge. They are the know-how, the 'savour-faire'. I might say that I have the skill to translate a good deal of French, or I have the knowledge how to translate a good deal of French.

So, I think we have arrived at a very 'mechanistic' view of how the mind works. That there is a big pile of inanimate 'stuff' called knowledge. And we have some tools to dig that stuff up and shovel it into our brains. Why would something so wonderful and complex as the human mind behave according to how we dig earth? My starting point would be to remind ourselves that we are just that: 'ourselves'. That's to say we are social creatures. At the core of all our activity is social existence. Even at what seems our most individual thought and feeling is social existence. I'll elaborate. Take language. Every word and expression we use has been shaped and re-shaped millions of times by social use. Though we are very used to the idea of looking for and finding what is individual and distinctive about great writers' language, in actual fact that language was explicitly (sometimes) and inherently acquired through those writers' social interactions (hanging out with other people and other books) and, just as importantly, produced for social purposes (audiences, friends etc).

Everything we do is affected by or affects language. This is not just a matter of how we describe things - though it is that. It is also a matter of how we plan, how we make things happen, how we relate to each other how we feel, what our intentions and needs are, how we are going to satisfy those needs, how we are frustrated by not achieving those needs and much, much more. In other words, our needs and feelings (seemingly private matters) are created and recreated in that social medium of language - words and expressions.

When it comes to what I regard as the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills, then I would suggest that we need a 'social' model for how we acquire the means of knowing and doing. That's to say, we should dump the idea of shovelling earth, and think instead of what are the best circumstances by which children (well, all of us actually) can acquire these means of knowing and doing. Following from my 'social' model of language and activity, I would say, then, that how we organise ourselves socially in classrooms, study places, laboratories is a key to acquiring the means of knowing and doing. We have to put at the core of it, the social acquisition of the language required to understand and interpret. Most of this will come through 'talk' ie discussion and debate. Some of it will come through the reading of how people argue 'on the page' ie through the routines and procedures developed over time in 'theory' ie the books where people have developed ideas or put arguments for and against things, or shown how this or that can be proved to be true. Clearly, talk is social, but so is the reading of the page where an argument is made or an idea presented. That's to say, sitting reading is a socially acquired process, the making of books, the production of ideas comes about because of our social needs and has developed in history as socially approved or proved activity. Libraries, labs, internet sites are all socially created institutions and we find our places in them, or our roles to play in them according to how we make ourselves socially ie with and alongside others, influenced by others, influencing others.

All this, I believe, has a fundamental part to play in education. It means recognising that a classroom is a social place which will not simply be a place that requires of students to receive knowledge but that it is a place that makes knowledge and makes it socially between all its participants. And this knowledge does of itself include what are called 'skills'. The 'how' of acquiring the 'stuff' is part of what we come to know, the means of learning how to think and do.

b) talking about 'knowledge and skills' says it all.

I think there are two problems with this 1) it prevents us from seeing that knowledge and skills (if that's what we're going to call them) are debatable and 2) some activities cannot be reduced to either. More specifically, what we call 'the arts'.

1. We have created an education system that has elevated 'retrieval' and 'inference' to the be-all and end-all. We repeat over and over again the process: 'Bobby has a blue hat. What colour was his hat?' The child who says 'blue' is right. The child who doesn't know is wrong. Then we say, 'It was raining. Why was he wearing a hat?' The child who says, 'Because it was raining' is right. The child who says,'Because Bobby supports Chelsea' is wrong. That's because the child is 'interpreting'. He or she is using previously acquired knowledge and using it to interpret this presentation of 'facts' according to possible principles and observations. But that child is 'wrong'.

I would suggest that if we are serious about education then we need to put 'interpretation' at the heart of it. This involves retrieval and inference but moves on to dealing with why we need to retrieve and infer to the point where we are debating what is feasible, appropriate, 'seaworthy', viable, verifiable and so on. It engages with our most fundamental need: to find out what we need in order to survive and flourish. That's to say, finding what will work or won't work. And it does this through being sceptical, through wondering about several possibilities. It engages with trial and error. These are all processes by which science and art have created the world we live in.

2. The arts. If we reduce the arts to 'knowledge' and 'skills' we won't get very good art and we won't get very good discussion and interpretation of the arts. Unless we engage with how and why we feel the way we do, then the arts won't have the power to engage us, make us care, take us to new possibilities in what we think and do. I'll return to this in another blog.

In the meantime, as you can see from the above, I think that 'interpretation' is one of the key processes that we should be focussing on in education and the acquisition of useful and important knowledge and skills (though I wouldn't call them that) flow from putting it at the centre of learning.