Let's bring knowledge back into schools

By Elizabeth Rata

Education expert Elizabeth Rata has won an award for a paper on teaching and knowledge. In this extract, she argues that students are shortchanged by an emphasis on teaching skills rather than content

Students can't look up something on Google when they don't know what they are looking for. Photo / Thinkstock
Students can't look up something on Google when they don't know what they are looking for. Photo / Thinkstock

One of the great puzzles in education today is what has happened to knowledge.

Bewildered parents suspect something has happened in schools but are not quite sure what. Knowledge is after all what schools are about, surely - so what is going on? Why does our national curriculum not mention content knowledge? Why is it all about skills, competencies, and values?

That a problem does exist can be seen in the general unease felt by many parents but it has taken Sebastian Faulks in his novel, A Week in December, to say it in all its raw truth. Faulks' character Gabriel the lawyer goes straight to the jugular, saying we have chosen to know less.

Gabriel tells of his own luck in being educated "at a time when teachers still thought children could handle knowledge". He describes how, first, teachers withheld knowledge, then the next generation of teachers didn't have the knowledge to withhold. In abandoning knowledge, Gabriel tells us, we have chosen to know less.

Is he right? Unfortunately yes - our national curriculum is hollowed out of knowledge. As with social experiments in the past, New Zealand takes a perverse pleasure in being ahead of the queue to go that one extra step into the extreme. The reasonable concern with the way academic knowledge was taught in the past led, not to holding on to such valuable knowledge and improving the way it is taught, but to abandoning knowledge for skills. For the past few decades many in education have worried about how to teach, and rightly so, but in doing so, we have taken our eyes of what to teach.

The benefits have been some real improvements in teaching, especially in motivating disaffected pupils. But the improvement in pedagogy has come at a cost, one we as a nation cannot afford if we are to remember how to be democratic.

Academic knowledge is what makes us intelligent. The practice in doubting, criticising, and judging that such knowledge demands is also essential for a democratic citizenry.

We cannot be democratic unless each generation learns how to be so. But academic knowledge requires years of hard work to acquire. It is neither easy nor instant. It needs teachers who are knowledgeable in the subjects they teach and knowledgeable in how to teach that content. Of course there are many teachers like this - teachers who love their subjects and who know how to explain the knowledge. They know that children come to school to learn what they don't already know and what cannot be learned from experience. This doesn't mean that experience isn't relevant.

Understanding academic knowledge can be helped by referring to a child's experience but its purpose is different. Academic knowledge is the purpose of schooling. We go to school to learn a different kind of knowledge from the knowledge of everyday experience. Of course everyday knowledge (or culture) matters. We could not live from day to day in our families and communities without such knowledge. Everyday knowledge is about how to live our lives, how to relate to people, all those little details that we do without even thinking that we have to learn how to do them; like how to ride a bike, how to dress ourselves, how to talk to our friends - all important knowledge but not the purpose of schooling.

What does academic knowledge give us that everyday knowledge does not? It teaches us ways of thinking about the world that we cannot learn from experience. Obviously I wasn't alive during the first migrations to New Zealand in the 14th century but knowledge from history, archaeology, and anthropology can teach me as much as is currently possible to know about who the people were who made such perilous journeys, why they did so, and where they came from. I can't know a metaphor in the same way as I know how to cook a meal but the study of literature teaches me that here is a wonderful way to put unusual ideas today to reveal deeper meanings, often in startling, even shocking, ways. Who can ever think of greed in the same way again after reading Shakespeare's "greed the golden leprosy"? The destructive, rotting evocation of those four words lodges in our minds. Such powerful knowledge builds our intellectual architecture so that we can make moral judgments based on reason.

Academic knowledge enables us to think the unthinkable, to know what we don't and never will experience. It enables us to become more human by being connected to the knowledge that has already been created and to the possibilities that lie ahead. None of this comes easily. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the 20-year-old mathematician who has 20 centuries of mathematics in his mind.

Acquiring that knowledge, and for each of us, there are different amounts and different contents, cannot occur without working for it. Sportspeople work hard to achieve success. The same lesson about hard work and commitment applies to academic endeavour. But to achieve success at school there must be something to acquire.

All kids deserve the chance to know more than what their culture and community can teach them, says Elizabeth Rata. Photo / Natalie Slade
All kids deserve the chance to know more than what their culture and community can teach them, says Elizabeth Rata. Photo / Natalie Slade

What has caused the loss of confidence in education to teach the cumulative knowledge of the arts, humanities, and sciences, and limit us to the confines of culture? Why have we ended up with a national curriculum filled with the skills and competencies of compliance rather than the doubt and criticism that learning academic subjects teaches?

There are many reasons. One is the turn against so-called "Western knowledge". This is the misguided belief that the knowledge developed in the disciplines, knowledge which belongs to us all, is somehow the same as cultural or everyday knowledge. Another reason, one growing in influence today, is also equally misguided. It is the notion that knowledge is a process. That it is not content. This "Knowledge Age" or "21st Future Learning" approach is gaining ground because it offers what some call an exciting digital utopianism. Dispense with the teacher, bring out the iPad, let's co-inquire together. But pupils don't know what they don't know. You can't look it up on Google when you don't know what you are looking for. You can't recognise it when you see it, and you can't judge it if you do find it.

Knowledge is actual content, as philosopher Karl Popper reminded us, a lesson forgotten at our peril. We need to learn it from those who know the content. Good teachers are knowledgeable teachers. When we remember this we will value them again. But it is a status that must be earned. A teacher who says "I co-inquire with my students", "I learn from them", "we construct knowledge together" does not deserve that status. If we are to value teachers again, we must first value what teachers have (or should have). This is the academic knowledge found in school subjects that most parents don't have at home.

This does not mean it is only the knowledge preserved from the past and handed down to each successive generation. Knowledge is constantly changing, but not because it is re-invented by each generation. It is the task of those who work in the disciplines to judge knowledge, to retain what has value, to modify and improve, to create new knowledge by adding to the disciplinary canon. It is their task to teach it to those who, in turn, will teach it as academic school subjects to the next generation. These disciplinary experts, usually found in our public universities, have a duty to the nation to ensure that what is passed on is the best possible knowledge available. For this to be the case the knowledge must go through rigorous and ongoing testing.

As philosopher Jurgen Habermas says, it should be put on trial to defend its claims. If academics in discussion with teachers and the public do not decide what should be included in the national curriculum, then who does decide?

Academic subjects should be taught at school to all students. Obviously, how these subjects are taught is crucial but just because acquiring knowledge is difficult does not mean it is not for all pupils. While the best schools have continued to teach content knowledge, those who have abandoned knowledge have done so with the best of intentions.

But it is misguided to believe that "dumbed down" knowledge or using technology can compensate for the hard graft of knowing what you didn't know.

To deny children academic knowledge is to deny to the very children who need the knowledge the most the means by which they can succeed in life. Worse still is the return to the belief that some children can't handle knowledge. If this was so then why have national education systems?

All children deserve the chance to know more than what their culture and community can teach them. It is true some will go further than others but all must have the opportunity. Let's bring back content knowledge into our schools, before, as Gabriel the lawyer reminds us, there is no knowledge left to teach.

Elizabeth Rata is an associate professor in the University of Auckland education faculty. Her article The Politics of Knowledge in Education won the 2012 British Educational Research Journal paper of the year.


What others say

Three education experts respond:

1) Angela Roberts, president, Post Primary Teachers' Association

Since the New Zealand curriculum was introduced in 2008, we have seen a significant shift in how we approach the teaching of knowledge in our schools. We haven't replaced knowledge with skills and competencies. Rather, we, as teachers and leaders, are more conscious about ensuring that we take the opportunity to teach skills and competencies alongside knowledge. The fact that subject-specific expertise is still required of teachers in secondary schools is evidence that academic knowledge is still the major focus of classroom teaching. We do need more than "experience" but without being competent, creative thinkers and effective collaborators we cannot hope that our children will take the knowledge that we impart and create new knowledge and innovative solutions to lead us into a bright future.

2) Dr John Langley, member of the Minister of Education's Forum on Student Achievement

Elizabeth has a point. I have a colleague who once said, "Process without a product is nothing more than recreation." Teaching is the process and knowledge is the product. Both are needed if our young are to realise their true potential. Sure, knowledge changes and is built on over time but it is what makes us human. It has concerned me in recent years that our increased ease and ability to access information has been confused for and, in some cases, provided an argument for, not actually learning something. The two are not the same. It is very hard to have an intelligent conversation with someone who constantly has to rush away to a computer to find out what their next salient point is going to be. As with most things in life the issue here is one of balance. It is right and proper that such public discussion should take place.

3) Allan Vester, chairman of the NZ Secondary Principals' Council and head of Edgewater College in Pakuranga, East Auckland

The curriculum is now far less prescriptive about the knowledge base that the key competencies and skills are taught in. However, that is not the same thing as saying there is to be no knowledge. The skills, competencies and values can't be taught as standalone items. What the curriculum does is give schools and teachers more flexibility about what context they are taught and practised in. I believe that the ability to synthesise information, data and situations and then arrive at a solution is what defines intelligence, rather than our ability to remember and marshal together a discrete body of knowledge. Just as acquiring academic knowledge requires effort and time, so too does the acquisition of skills and competencies. It will be a sad day in education if teachers are judged solely on what they know and not on their ability to encourage, engage and inspire their students to become lifelong learners.

- NZ Herald

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