Monday, December 31, 2012

Teaching Skills vs. Teaching Knowledge

This teacher quite emphatically favors the latter:
Here's my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking Skills don't exist, at least, not in the way we are led to believe. Despite the fact that many schools like to flush precious resources on Thinking Skills days, they only serve to give teachers the illusion of what is often, terrifyingly called 'deep learning' (God save us). They are the phantom limbs of learning. They are a quite perfect waste of time, which is bad enough in the schools of the middle classes, but disastrous for any child who already starts with an economic disadvantage. . . .
As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. Let's pick a skill. Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them...well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit's guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don't fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them.
Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers. Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious.
Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff, otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.
These skills can't be taught, separately from content. They certainly can't be assessed on it. We don't even know what they are. They can't be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge. Let's stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time our children so desperately need on things they need to know. Let them deal with the thinking. They're fine on their own with that bit.