Through our What if… debates we have endeavoured to tackle the big, longstanding debates in education. This month we took on perhaps the biggest of them all: ‘knowledge vs skills’. Recent commentaries have brought greater nuance to the question of whether the school curriculum should focus on building knowledge or on developing skills (or whether they are inextricable). Nevertheless, contrasting views persist on what the school curriculum should deliver.
We started with the question of how best to develop well-prepared and well-rounded school leavers. This meant looking at how the school curriculum can cultivate pupils’ knowledge, but also their understanding, as well as other desirable dispositions and attributes, such as empathy and good judgement – qualities that when taken together might confer wisdom. What if…, as the title of the event went, our main objective in education was to build wisdom?
To tackle this question we assembled a panel with richly contrasting expertise and experience, in the form of: former political strategist turned teacher and school leader Peter Hyman; teacher educator David Lambert; Tony Sewell CBE, champion of STEM learning for under-represented groups and Cat Scutt, College of Teaching lead on teacher development.
The panel concurred on the importance of all young people being enabled to access the ‘best that has been thought and said’ – and, crucially, on their being enabled to apply that knowledge (with some allusions there, perhaps, to Michael Young’s ‘Future 3’ heuristic and creating a knowledge curriculum based on engagement not adherence). Tony Sewell’s comments were powerful in highlighting how for some children this has been more by accident than design (including, in his own case, the happenstance of having a retired Latin teacher for a neighbour).
Where the speakers differed was on what importance to attach to other elements of what it might mean to ‘be educated’. Summing up these other elements for us was School 21’s (and Big Education’s) typology of ‘head, heart and hand’ and the school’s ethos of attending to each in equal measure. As Peter Hyman outlined, while the head is about knowledge, the heart concerns character and well-being, and the hand concerns creativity. Equipping young people with a sense of agency to transform the world for the better runs across these categories. For the panel, the question of whether the heart and the hand should be the purview of the main timetable or consigned to afterschool clubs remained an open one.
The curriculum, of course, doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A recurrent theme in the discussion was our national failure – from policy-makers to parents – to value knowledge as a good in itself (as opposed to its economic role). This brought us to the issue of accountability and the way in which it has compounded the narrowing of the curriculum. As we had also heard earlier in the week in a lecture from the Global Teacher of the Year, Andria Zafirakou, arts education has particularly suffered in this context. There is some irony in the fact that, when making their recruitment decisions, employers are starting to show less interest in the credentials (or ‘bits of paper’) that the education system currently supplies its graduates with.
Ofsted’s plans to pay greater attention to breadth and balance in schools’ curricula (and mark down ‘exam factories’) have the potential to counteract these trends. David Lambert raised the accompanying matter of teachers’ responsibility for what they are teaching as well as how they are teaching it, and the need for them to take greater ownership – control – of the curriculum in this regard. Having started with a focus on pupils’ wisdom, we’d now arrived at the matter of teachers’ wisdom. As Cat Scutt observed, professional practice is influenced by fashions. The College of Teaching is trying to lessen the swing of the pendulum between knowledge and skills in the case of curriculum practice, to enable teachers to make their own measured judgement on the what as well as the how.
But Ofsted also doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and, as our speakers pointed out, the wider incentives for schools remain towards maximising exam results. In asking his question to the panel a pupil in our audience himself admitted to focusing on grades rather than learning. Straight from the horse’s mouth. This sets us up nicely for our next debate …on school accountability.
Watch/listen back to the debate in full here.
Find out more and register for our upcoming debate on school accountability on 13 February, What if… we struck a different balance between school autonomy and regulation?, here.