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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CROSS PHASE COLLABORATION: ASSESSMENT WITHOUT LEVELS AND MASTERY APPROACHES

West Sussex Deputies Network

As part of a new series of posts we are reporting back the progress made on the Joint Practice Development Projects that ran last year.  Shortly we will be sending out details of how you can request a JPD partnership this year with WSDN support. More details will be out via email shortly but for now here is the first of 3 blogs sharing the cross-school collaboration that defines our network and makes WSDN a unique and vibrant example of effective  and purposeful networking.

 CROSS PHASE COLLABORATION: ASSESSMENT WITHOUT LEVELS AND MASTERY APPROACHES

 The Weald decided to utilise the WSDN JPD Project opportunity in 2013/4 to support the cross phase development it has started earlier that year. It lent a context and purpose to the work that was already underway and meant that all parties involved could take advantage of the training from Professor Bill Lucas and membership of Expansive…

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Why local authorities can still matter

In recent years it has become fashionable to knock local authorities. They are, so the argument goes, inefficient and an unnecessary brake on school autonomy and innovation. It would be better to free schools from their ‘interference’. That local authorities are a bad idea when it comes to coordinating schools has become an accepted orthodoxy. Given the challenging financial times we have been in this has also meant dramatic cuts to any remaining local school improvement capability with many authorities able to little more than ensuring adequate school places are available and dealing with safeguarding issues.

Collaboration between schools where it occurs these days is most likely to be through membership of a chain of Academies – potentially spread across England – or via voluntary working with a body such as SSAT or to our own Expansive Education Network (eedNET).

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Vocational Pedagogy – what it is, why it matters and how to put it into practice

Lucas (2014) Vocational Pedagogy Forum for UNESCO

The 2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning reminded us that there is a global learning crisis and that the quality of education is at the center of it. The quality of education largely depends on good teachers. This is particularly evident in technical and vocational education and training, where TVET teachers have a distinctive role to play in improving the quality of education. Quality TVET teachers are those with both expert knowledge in their field and who have the ability to transfer this knowledge to their students. However, we too often forget to discuss this important question: how to teach TVET?
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Resourceful and creative learners or PISA success or both?

When English children are compared unfavourably to those in Finland or parts of China by their PISA test scores (as they frequently are), there is always a temptation for people to suggest that teachers should change tack.  ‘We must focus on the basics of English and maths and stop being interested in this wider learning capability stuff’, is the cry from some.
But such polarizing sentiments are deeply unhelpful and ill-founded. Doing really well at maths and becoming a powerful learner are not mutually exclusive goals. We can and must achieve both. It was in an attempt to reconcile these ‘false opposites’ that Guy Claxton and I coined the expression ‘expansive education’. In our recent book Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world, we explore the underpinning research for this view (it’s strong) and share examples from across the world of teachers who want outstanding results but not at any price. For primary schools wanting practical examples, Building Learning Power  is an excellent starting point.
There are three strong arguments to be made here. The first is based in research, the second is a moral argument and the third requires us to be principled pragmatists.

1. Heeding the evidence
‘For 20 years it has been known that students with more elaborate conceptions of learning perform better at public examinations.’  Specifically we know that certain pro-learning capabilities improve attainment. Two powerful examples are emotional self-management (persisting when the going gets tough) and the possession of a positive or ‘growth’ mindset  as Carol Dweck has termed it. Such a mindset would include self-belief, willingness to practise, learning from mistakes, and an inclination to collaborate. John Hattie  has specified very clearly those aspects of learning and teaching which best correlate with raising achievement. These include formative feedback such as assessment for learning, peer/reciprocal teaching, and learning to learn strategies.

2. Making the moral case
Schools, we believe, have a moral duty to prepare children for a lifetime of learning. Doing well on tests is important, but it is only a part of a bigger educational and societal project. The outcomes we desire from schools include communal virtues – honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, tolerance and empathy, the virtues of self-regulation – patience, self-discipline and the ability to tolerate frustration or disappointment. And then there are the epistemic or learning virtues, those that enable one to deal well with real-world challenges. These include determination, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. (We know that will power, for example, behaves exactly like a mental muscle that can be strengthened by exercise ). Teachers should be consciously, persistently and systematically cultivating the habits of mind that will serve children well, adding to the harmony, prosperity and creativity of society.
The good news from this moral argument is that the development of almost all of the kinds of the virtues we list will help to improve the PISA results. It’s not an ‘either/or’.

3. Being pragmatic
For some primary teachers it can come as shock to realise that it is, in any case, simply not possible just to ‘do the basics’, to concentrate on subject expertise alone. For whether you are teaching maths or English or history or science, you will also be shaping the way learners see themselves. Will children be acting dependently or resourcefully in maths? How will children view their drafts in English – embarrassed by their mistakes or comfortable with their story-in-progress? Will dispositions like empathy and rigorous analysis be cultivated in history, or will they be colouring in and getting ready to regurgitate? And will they be thinking like scientists or in a lab devoid of first-hand experimentation?
Even if we were to want to, we cannot choose between PISA-focus and genuine learning. For whatever curriculum we teach our values will be on show and learners will see which kinds of learning counts for us. That’s what I mean by principled pragmatism. We all need to provide an apprenticeship for children that produces both powerful learners and great test-takers!

Bill Lucas is the Director of the Centre for Real-World at the University of Winchester and the co-creator of the Expansive Education Network. Find out more at http://www.expansiveeducation.net.

This article appeared in the May 2014 edition of Teach Primary