Why knowledge isn’t enough

Written by: Professor Bill Lucas | Published: 08 November 2017

With even PISA acknowledging the importance of creative thinking, there is an emerging consensus that ‘dispositions’ or ‘skills’ must be considered just as much as ‘knowledge’

Knowledge of all kinds is very important. We need to know about our world, about weather and migration, about warfare and peace, about languages and literature, about number and letter.

Sometimes this can be relatively simple – why things fall downwards; sometimes much more complex – understanding the so-called god particle, for example.

Of equal importance is process knowledge, how to do an array of things from arriving at the correct lesson with the right books to using a map when we get lost; how to work out whether a special offer is good value or how to plan a complex investigation into a topic and distil findings for a class presentation.

Many schools teach these kinds of knowledge well. Student timetables make it easy for learners to know what to expect by organising life into subjects – English, maths, science, music and so forth.

But we also need more, students who know how to do things they have not yet been taught, who are able to operate effectively in situations they have not previously encountered.

Across the world a significant shift is taking place as it is increasingly being recognised that something other than knowledge is required. Australia calls them capabilities. Others call them “dispositions” or “habits of mind” or “attributes” or “competencies”. Key dispositions include creative thinking, collaboration, perseverance and self-perception.

We know from the work of Lesley Gutman and Ingrid Schoon (2013) and James Heckman (2014), for example, just how important these are for success in both subject-based tests and more widely throughout life.

Professor Guy Claxton and I have explored such dispositions in greater detail in Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn.

Over the last few decades in England we have dabbled with introducing these ideas into schools. Personal, learning and thinking skills (or PLTS) as they became known were one laudable attempt. But too often these did not work well as they became “siloed”, with schools somehow imagining that they could be taught in the abstract in separate “skills” lessons. Over-keen advocates seemed to suggest that they were more important than knowledge and we quickly found ourselves in an unhealthy false dichotomy: skills versus knowledge.

Worse still they became branded as “21st century skills”. This latter notion became increasingly silly as we entered the 18th year of the millennium suggesting as it does that we have not yet worked out what they are and that, magically at the strike of midnight, we needed a different skill-set.

For dispositions truly to be embedded in schools requires a shift in our thinking. A secondary school such as Thomas Tallis in London shows us how this can be achieved. Talented teachers continue to focus on the subjects of the curriculum with which we are all familiar, at the same time as selecting teaching and learning methods which cultivate things like curiosity, perseverance and effective collaboration.

Initially it was necessary to highlight the dispositions explicitly. Gradually they become integrated so that, for example, as part of a maths lesson, students learn strategies for working their way through difficult questions or in science they are introduced to different roles which scientific teams play when conducting experiments (see further information).

Ellen Spencer and I feature schools like this from across the world in our new book, Teaching Creative Thinking.

Recently the importance of dispositions has been acknowledged by one of the “guardians” of global comparative standards, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In 2021, as well as tests for 15-year-olds in English, maths and science, PISA will introduce a test of creative thinking.

I am honoured to have been appointed as co-chair of the PISA Strategy Group which will advise on the development of this test, based on our research undertaken at the University of Winchester.

Further corroboration of the importance of capabilities alongside knowledge can be seen elsewhere in the world by the explicit inclusion of them in the national curricula of, for example, Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Singapore.

Employers are increasingly making their voices heard on this matter, too. Often using the phrase “soft skills” to describe the kinds of dispositions listed earlier, the Confederation of British Industry recently called for an education system that develops determined, resilient, curious and creative young people who are also knowledgeable and skilful.

Put simply then, there is an emerging consensus. We need schools which embed capabilities in the formal and informal curriculum with just as much rigour and thought as when they focus on knowledge.

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‘Forget technical and professional education: there’s nothing wrong with the word vocational’

By Bill Lucas

25th November www.tes.com

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Ditching the term ‘vocational’ is likely to perpetuate an even more corrosive split than the academic versus vocational divide, writes a leading educationalist.

There are at least three ways of raising the quality of vocational education. We can look at assessment (as Baroness Wolf did so effectively five years ago), we can look at structures and systems (as Lord Sainsbury has done recently) or we can focus on workforce capability and pedagogy (as we have argued in our research into vocational pedagogy).

Whichever method we prefer – and we need all three – we need first to specify the outcomes we desire from our vocational pathway before designing systems, qualifications and pedagogies. Our choice of language needs to follow not precede such thinking.

Read full article here

Schools will teach ‘soft skills’ from 2017, but assessing them presents a challenge

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20th November
Bill Lucas
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When students go back to school in January 2017 there will be some significant changes to their timetables. As well as learning areas like English, maths and science, there will be some new things to grapple with called “capabilities”.

The Australian curriculum will be focusing not just on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – but also on the kinds of “soft” skills young people will need if they are to be successful throughout their lives.

The new capabilities are:

  • Information and communication technology – using technology to access information, create products and solve problems
  • Critical and creative thinking – learning how to think and find ways to approach problems
  • Personal and social – recognising others’ emotions, supporting diversity and working together
  • Ethical – understanding values and concepts that underpin views
  • Intercultural – learning about your own and others’ cultures and beliefs.

Read full blog here

EBac: ‘With what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”?’

By Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas

This article originally appeared in TES 11th February 2016 

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The idea of ‘core academic subjects’ is an example of lazy thinking, argue two education academics

The secretary of state’s foreword to the DfE’s recent consultation on the English Baccalaureate begins with good rational argument, but rapidly moves into political rhetoric with the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations…” At first glance clever, this statement is actually snide and unhelpful. It’s also obviously party political.

Into the document itself and there is a more spurious suggestion still, that: “The core academic subjects at school are the primary colours of an educated person’s palette.” This time wearing the metaphor of the curriculum as an artist’s palette with certain subjects on it, the assertion is that there are a set that are “academic”, “a basic right” and a set that (presumably) are not.

At a stroke the idea of a core academic subject has been born in English educational thinking, introduced to an educational world as if neither “core” nor “academic” might be deeply contested areas.

The EBac brings together the core academic subjects that the vast majority of young people should study to age 16. To enter the EBac, pupils must take up to eight GCSE qualifications across five subject ‘pillars’

The subject pillars are English, maths, science, languages and humanities. No arts. No design and technology. No physical education. No social sciences. No religious studies. No interdisciplinary studies. Add your own preferred ‘outrageous’ omissions to our list as you see fit – and enjoy the irony that the art-inspired metaphor mentioned earlier draws from a subject EBac has implicitly defined as non-core and non-academic.

At this stage it is tempting to think of these five subject “pillars” as Ozymandias’s “trunkless legs of stone” discovered by Shelley’s “traveller from an ancient land”, and ultimately found to be worthless: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”

School leaders wanting to retain their own academically challenging, broad and balanced curricula are up against strong incentives to submit to the values of EBac and its curious pillars. For EBac will have secondary school performance measures scrutinised by Ofsted as its enforcer.

Don’t get us wrong. It is right that we are thinking collectively about what should be at the core of a good education. We recently coordinated a submission from ASCL, RSA, PTA UK, Comino Foundation, City & Guilds and others to the Commons Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education on this very subject. In it, we argued for a widely owned and stable definition of the core capabilities, knowledge and skills that all students should gain from their time at school.

At such a moment it seems timely to ask more penetrating questions about what we want pupils to learn. Are there some core knowledge, skills, and capabilities that all pupils should acquire? If so, what? Many have argued for inclusion of capabilities, including the CBI, ourselves and the Sutton Trust. The curriculum studied by Australian children for example, includes a range of “capabilities” of obvious importance: from literacy and numeracy to critical and creative thinking.

The academic core

So, where does this idea of an academic subject come from? To understand this we need to head back to the Middle Ages. Academic subjects were originally those taught at the “academy”, at the small number of universities that had been founded at this time. The academic core – the Trivium – consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music theory – the Quadrivium – completed the medieval core academic curriculum, with physics, metaphysics and moral philosophy added to the list soon after.

In the 19th century, with the flourishing of grammar schools, the shorthand for an academic curriculum came to be the 3Rs. But as Sir Christopher Grayling reminds us, the original three Rs were “reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy”. Making got dropped in favour of writing.

Looking at the EBac thinking today it is as if this curriculum history never happened, as if there have not been earlier debates. The current, very modern list has emerged with a flourish and not even a backwards glance at how our thinking has developed.

If “core academic” is being used today as a proxy for being rigorous and demanding, it is logical to assume that all other academic subjects are ill-founded and undemanding. Presumably practical and vocational subjects, like the earlier wroughting, are valued even less.

Unsurprisingly many Russell Group universities are comfortable with EBac. But what about the institutions who will be providing learning for 3 million apprentices? What about those whose talents take them to universities and colleges specialising in the applied disciplines that we also need? How will EBac impact on the morale of the teachers of non-EBac subjects? To what extent will it perpetuate and entrench the academic-vocational divide?

And what of other curriculum selection criteria such as usefulness for employability and for civic life?

It’s certainly important to get the right blend of “academic” and “vocational” to ensure that all children can find their best possible life trajectory regardless of background. Only then might we want to ask whether (and which) core subjects are the best way to develop these knowledge, skills, and capabilities.

Limiting curriculum opportunities

In the list of “core” EBac subjects there is an assumption that vocational ones, and those left off the list, are fundamentally low in intellectual rigor; that we are doing a disservice to “intelligent” children if they don’t opt for EBac. But with what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”? What criteria have been used to determine that our 2016 Trivium and Quadrivium is fit for today’s complex world?

Not limiting the curriculum opportunities we offer young people is a noble goal. No child should be disadvantaged by inappropriately narrow subject combinations or under-ambitious advice. Yet half of this problem was tackled by a radical overhauling of vocational offerings prompted by Alison Wolf’s review.

In deciding what children should study, the RSA identified two key issues: “whether the pupil is likely to succeed in the EBac subjects, and how far studying this set of GCSEs contributes positively to their future education and career ambitions.” Courses of study should be a positive choice and not a “Plan B”. If a child loves art, have them study art. It’s more likely to be useful to them in their future vocation than something they do for a false sense of keeping options open.

EBac, the SSAT suggests, will effectively limit choice for the majority. Pupils who would benefit from greater breadth and for whom EBac is not the best choice, lose out. Worse, even those for whom the so-called “rigour” of EBac might be best: if schools are not required to enter students they don’t think will achieve, the proposed universal benefits of a core post-14 entitlement, “is being lost on the altar of the 5-results measure.” Back to the Ozymandias pillars and Shelley’s subsequent despair.

If schools are avoiding doing the best for particular pupils because of the risk associated with performance measures, then the performance measures are hindering rather than helping. In reality, manipulating children’s options to keep them “open” for the sake of it can sometimes be worse advice than telling a student simply to study what interests them.

The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.

Ellen Spencer and Bill Lucas, creators of the Expansive Education Network, are based at the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester

Putting the body back into school

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Blog on Intelligence in the Flesh- new book by Guy Claxton, Emeritus Professor, University of Winchester

When schools were originally being designed, they incorporated the then-widespread view that minds were totally different from and smarter than bodies. Everything to do with human intelligence at its best – logical reasoning, linguistic fluency, aesthetic appreciation, mathematical sophistication – were exclusively to do with the mind, and had nothing to do with the body. Bodies were just ways of getting your mind from place to place, and of taking care of the physiological housekeeping. Thus the curriculum was built around a hierarchy of esteem for different kinds of human accomplishment, with the most abstract and rational at the top and the most bodily at the bottom. The more intelligence you had, the more you would, almost as a law of nature, aspire to the realms of mathematics and grammar, and disdain the lowly pursuits of carpentry and football. If you were ‘bright’ you did Latin and trigonometry; if ‘dull’ you did Physical Education and Design Technology. Those values persist to this day. Look at which subjects get included in (or excluded from) the high-status ‘English baccalaureate’. Look at how much time each gets during the week.

This view of minds and bodies is now comprehensively discredited, so the foundations of traditional schooling are no longer solid rock but have crumbled into sand. The new science of ‘embodied cognition’ – the basis of my book Intelligence in the Flesh – tells us that bodies are not merely vehicles or skivvies of the mind, they are critical to it. For example:

  • How you think depends on how you are sitting. Sit up straight, chest out, and you will solve anagram puzzles more quickly and accurately. Adopt such a ‘power pose’ before going in to an interview and you will perform better.
  • The depth of your normal breathing correlates with your IQ. Breathe faster or more shallowly and the quality of the energy being provided to those little grey cells deteriorates and you can entertain fewer and less complicated thoughts.
  • Develop greater sensitivity to your heartbeat and your decision-making and your creativity improve. Einstein famously said that he got the insights that led to the theory of relativity by attending to physical stirrings and promptings in his body.
  • Many people – philosophers as well as footballers – think their best thoughts when they are being physically active. Theatre directors as well as sports coaches know that many smart people have to move to think. Craftsmen and artists of all kinds know that you think with your hands as well as with your brain.
  • Whether you find arithmetic involving negative numbers easy or hard turns out to depend on physical imagery. If you think of ‘subtracting’ as taking things away from a pile, you can’t imagine having less than no-things, but if you see it as walking backwards on a path towards where you started, it’s easy to imagine walking back through ‘zero’ and heading in the opposite direction. Our concrete, physical experience underpins even our loftiest thoughts.
  • Change your body – change even your awareness of your body – and your precious intelligence – memory, problem-solving, creativity – changes too. Your whole body – your heart, your stomach, your immune system – talk so constantly and intricately to your brain, that every little somatic shift conditions what the rest of the brain is capable of thinking.

This science has caused a seismic shift in the ground on which education is built. Emotions are not anathema to intelligence, they are integral to it. Take away our feelings and we are not more intelligent but less. Drain the passion out of our intelligence and we are left with a kind of bloodless cleverness that may enable us to bamboozle political opponents with rhetoric tricks but which is quite unable to get to the human heart of the matter. Our top schools (and Ofsted) have prided themselves on turned out future leaders who are erudite and rational, but who, very often, lack common sense, let alone the wise judgement that the world needs. Meanwhile, every year tens of thousands of intelligent young people who are sensitive to the nuances of the physical and social worlds, but unable or unwilling to mug up the Periodic Table or the sub-plots of Othello for an exam, are made, iniquitously, to feel stupid or second rate. But it is the defenders of this antiquated and lop-sided curriculum who should feel ashamed of themselves, not the dancers, carers and mechanics.

Buy Intelligence in the Flesh here