| by James Mannion |
The notion that you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly has been hailed from the rooftops in recent years like it offers some great insight. This seems strange because it is so obvious. This so-called ‘neo-traditional’ concern for subject knowledge seems to be born of a frustration with a national curriculum that has been overly concerned with skills, twinned with insights from cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham that, well, you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly.
I must say I welcome the development, albeit for slightly different reasons than those often given by neo-trads. As a Science teacher of 10 years I think it is fair to say that in my subject at least, knowledge has been… not under-represented, so much as misconceived. I don’t think this is because there has been too much emphasis on skills, because the actual skills scientists use are under-represented as well. (Not to mention, bizarrely distorted: I have worked in neuroscience research labs at UCL and Harvard Medical School, and I never once heard anyone say “Hang on a minute guys… what’s the independent variable here?” I have also attended many medical conferences; not once have I seen a medic raise their hand and say “Thanks for your talk, it was fascinating but there’s one thing I’m not clear on: did you list your equipment?”)
Rather, my concern is that the knowledge base in Science is so broad – and therefore so shallow. The outgoing Triple Science GCSE, being sat for the last time this year, is like a vast ocean of knowledge that’s about half an inch deep. There’s a mind-boggling amount to cover but there’s no depth to any of it, and barely a whiff of what is by far and away the most fascinating aspect of Science – the incredible human stories behind how we came to know all this stuff. Bill Bryson grasped this when he wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, as does Michael Brooks in the equally excellent Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science. If only these guys wrote the GCSE specification.
To master this Pacific-sized puddle may make for a gruelling exam, but it provides a flimsy foundation for authentic scientific thinking and reasoning. So to clarify: I am not defending the status quo. If I had my way I would cover fewer topics in far greater depth. I would also introduce essays, to enable and encourage scientific thinking to go beyond the current upper limit: the point-scoring exercise of the 6-mark question.
So far so Tiger, you might think. Why, I’m asking for a greater depth of knowledge for goodness sake. So where do I part ways with my stripy feline friends? Well, as Neil Mercer explains in his chapter of the excellent ‘Speaking Frankly’ publication (recommended reading, free to download here): “Learning to become a scientist… obviously requires both content knowledge and the development of critical thinking skills.” Having read quite a bit from Tiger types on the role of subject knowledge, I think they tend to place too much emphasis on the former and too little on the latter. Allow me to explain.
Neo-trads frequently quote from Daniel Willingham’s excellent book Why don’t children like school? However, they tend to read it quite selectively. In particular, they are strongly influenced by passages like this one:
“Trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible. Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills teachers want for their students – such as the ability to analyse and to think critically – require extensive factual knowledge. The cognitive principle that guides this chapter is: ‘Factual knowledge must precede skill’.”
Because of statements like these, we have seen the phenomenon in recent years of teachers waking up from their blob-induced slumber like a scene from a science fiction movie, taking to the rooftops and declaring aloud “I was lost but now I am found! For all these years we’ve been teaching skills, when what we really need to do is teach knowledge! Let’s strip away everything and just drill knowledge! JUST TELL THEM! JOIN THE REVOLUTION! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS!” (These last 3 are direct Tiger Teacher quotes, by the way).
It is difficult to know the extent to which schools like Michaela “just drill knowledge” – this is not really something a visit to the school would solve, unless you stayed for several weeks – and so we have to go off what Tiger Teachers write. For example Joe Kirby, a Deputy Head at Michaela, wrote recently: “We use drills a lot at Michaela. Every lesson, six lessons a day, multiple times per lesson, learning at Michaela is an unrelenting regime of deliberately designed, subject-specific practice drills.” Perhaps I am misinterpreting this in some way, but here Joe does make it sound like drilling knowledge is pretty much the beginning and end of everything at his school. It is difficult to see where critical thinking skills could be developed in a timetable where every lesson is riddled with drill, because pretty much by definition you can’t develop critical thinking through drill.
Drilling knowledge has its place, and Willingham makes a good case for it in his book. But if you read what he says a bit more closely, you find that this is only half the story. Even if it is true that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking skills (it really is), this does not mean that drilling factual knowledge is sufficient to develop critical thinking skills (it really isn’t). Drilling knowledge for 6 lessons a day does not mean that students will automatically develop critical thinking skills in the way that Neo learned Kung Fu in the Matrix.
Here are some more quotes from the same Willingham chapter (emphases added):
“The implication is that facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills“
“We want our students to think, not simply to memorise. When someone shows evidence of thinking critically, we consider her smart and well-educated. When someone spouts facts without context, we consider her boring and a show-off.”
“The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge in parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”
“In this chapter I describe how cognitive scientists know that thinking skills and knowledge are bound together.”
“Our goal is not simply to have student know a lot of stuff-it’s to have them know stuff in service of being able to think effectively.”
Willingham even offers a quote from JD Everett, written in 1873:
“There is a great danger in the present day lest science-teaching should degenerate into the accumulation of disconnected facts and unexplained formulae, which burden the memory without cultivating the understanding.”
To reiterate, because this is important: knowledge is necessary for critical thinking, but it is not sufficient. It is abundantly clear that Willingham’s central message is one of balance, and he sums up the twin insights of cognitive science succinctly:
“It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”
He really couldn’t make it any clearer: knowledge is important, but please don’t rush off and create a school where knowledge is drilled didactically for 6 lessons a day… oh wait.
To explain the subtitle of this blog, borrowed from TV’s The Thick of It – I am currently in training for the Brighton marathon. Think of my goal – to complete the marathon in a respectable time – as a metaphor for writing a brilliant (if overly long) essay which showcases my critical thinking skills. As I increase my weekly mileage, I need to increase my intake of slow-release carbs accordingly. If all I do is eat porridge, I’ll just get fat; I’d get a stitch after half a mile. To run really well I need to combine eating lots of porridge with a detailed training regime; combining long runs with tempo bursts to increase my aerobic threshold; using technology like running machines and apps; reading about race tactics, sports psychology; and so on.
In becoming a scientist, as well as learning content knowledge you also need to understand how scientists collect and use evidence; how to design experiments so they’re resistant to experimenter bias; how to synthesise different strands of evidence into an argument or theory; how to pick holes in a method; how to spot when someone is cherry-picking data; how to question and determine the reliability of a source; how to systematically identify the source of data that doesn’t fit the pattern (shockingly, in GCSE science the advice with regard to anomalies is simply to ignore them – this is actually a question that regularly appears on the exam!); how to spot logical fallacies and rhetorical sleights of hand in the flow of a verbally fluent speaker… to name but a few.
To help students get better at critical thinking is not some woolly-minded progressive tree-hugging exercise. It is something you can achieve with traditional means also – modelling, explaining, deconstructing, providing opportunities for practice, scaffolding, withdrawing support, providing and acting on feedback, drafting and redrafting. It also benefits hugely from the judicious use of group work and paired work, as well as working independently or at the whole-class level. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.
Some people seem to suggest that critical thinking skills can’t be taught, For example, on Sunday Michael Fordham, a vocal advocate of subject knowledge, tweeted “Bailin et al took a lot of the critical thinking bandwagon apart in the late 1990s”, and provided a link to a paper entitled ‘Common misconceptions of critical thinking’. This was a response to my suggestion that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the development of critical thinking skills, and I assume that Michael intended this as proof that I was barking up the wrong tree, and that critical thinking can’t be taught. However in this article, which is well worth a read, the authors conclude that:
“a variety of means may be employed to promote [the development of critical thinking skills], including direct instruction, teacher modelling, creation of an educational environment where critical inquiry is valued and nurtured, and provision for students of frequent opportunities to think critically about meaningful common misconceptions of critical thinking challenges with appropriate feedback. Practice may also have a role to play, but it must be understood that it is not practice in the sense of a simple repetition of a skill, process or procedure. Rather such practice presupposes the kind of knowledge outlined above, and involves the development of critical judgement through applying this knowledge in a variety of contexts. It also involves attempts on the part of the learner to improve according to specific criteria of performance, and frequent feedback and evaluation with respect to the quality of thinking demonstrated.” (emphasis added)
I don’t think these is anything to argue with here. If we can accept that schools should seek to develop both subject knowledge and critical thinking skills – ideally embedded within the same scheme of work, and developed sequentially – shouldn’t we seek to do both? I have no doubt whatsoever that if schools like Michaela grasped the nettle and concerned themselves with finding ways to teach and develop critical thinking skills really well, I’m sure they would generate a lot good practice worth sharing. I hope it is not too long before they lift their gaze from relentless knowledge drills, re-read Willingham and accept that there is more to running a marathon than eating porridge.
If you want to find out about a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that is almost the polar opposite to Tiger Teaching – an approach rooted in research evidence, which has been found to lead to significantly improved academic attainment and a closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up – we are running a training event at Streatham and Clapham High School on January 27th. A Curriculum Journal article outlining the approach and its impact is available here. Tickets are available here. Tiger teachers welcome.