Knowledge has an image problem in Australian education

A teacher centred, knowledge based curriculum is not a particularly fashionable idea in Australian education.  In-fact knowledge has a bit of an image problem. Teacher centred approaches which emphasise the importance of knowledge are considered by many prominent people in education in Australia to be backward and harmful to student learning.

 

Concept based learning and generic skills have long been prioritised over knowledge in the Australian Curriculum despite the fact there is little evidence to support the idea that this results in better outcomes for students. According to Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research Geoff Masters students  “should be assisted to develop skills in working as a team, creating innovative solutions, communicating, solving problems and using technology.” The application of concepts and promotion of generic skills such as analysis, critical thinking, communication and problem solving are not only prioritised over knowledge but are also perceived by many to be divorced from knowledge.

 

This preeminence of skills and concept based learning in the Australian curriculum  belies the strong body of research evidence that has shown than knowledge and direct instruction were more likely to result in better learning outcomes for students. As Greg Ashman points out in The Tragedy of Australian Education“there is no evidence that critical thinking and problem-solving can be taught in this way. As Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains, you need to master a subject before being able to think critically about it.”

 

WHY KNOWLEDGE IS IMPORTANT

Getting better at Humanities involves knowing more about history, geography, economics and civics. A knowledge rich curriculum helps students make sense of what they learn, make connections between the content and think more critically and deeply about the things that matter. To develop skills in Humanities, students need a solid knowledge base. Skills cannot be learned in a vacuum. Driving a car, defending a corner in football, baking a cheesecake are all skills but they also require a lot of knowledge to complete successfully. Likewise, students are only able to analyse, evaluate, question, reflect, solve problems and communicate effectively once they have a significant amount of content specific knowledge. This knowledge helps students to think more effectively and make informed judgements about what they learn. A lack of knowledge curtails the ability of a student to think critically. As Greg Ashman says “Young children can think critically about subjects they know a great deal about, whereas trained scientists can fail to think critically in areas where they lack knowledge. That is, these skills are domain specific and cannot be taught as stand-alone abilities, divorced from subject knowledge. “

 

Failing to emphasise the importance of knowledge can be very harmful to learning as Dylan Wiliam emphasises:

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Although a knowledge rich curriculum is critical in enabling students to achieve success, we don’t want teaching lessons to simply involve students learning a lot of unconnected facts that they very quickly forget. We must ensure that the knowledge students learn sticks and is built upon. This involves a lot of direct teaching, regularly checking for understanding using low stakes testing to inform our teaching and reveal misconceptions. We need to establish ways of helping students to recall and retain information using effective revision techniques such as retrieval practice and spacing that will help them to strengthen their long term memory and demonstrate their learning in the long term.

 

This is really well explained by Tom Sherrington What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice. “A good knowledge-rich curriculum embraces learning from cognitive science about memory, forgetting and the power of retrieval practice.  Our curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail; to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it forming ever wider and deeper schema.  This requires approaches to curriculum planning and delivery that build in spaced retrieval practice, formative low-stakes testing and plenty of repeated practice for automaticity and fluency.”

 

WE ARE THE EXPERTS IN THE ROOM

It is important to acknowledge the importance of teachers being knowledgeable about what we teach. As Mark Enser  points out “In many subjects, we need to ensure that our knowledge is broad as well as deep.” The most effective teachers remain those who have extensive subject knowledge as well as the capacity to explain difficult topics in a clear and effective manner. To provide a knowledge rich curriculum we need to be comfortable with the content that we are teaching and committed to explaining it well. We need to be prepared to keep on learning and invest the time to read, plan and ask questions of each other to build on content knowledge.  Having a strong knowledge of what we teach results in better questions that help to reveal misconceptions, provide more effective feedback and facilitate better discussions, all key criteria of effective teaching. Being knowledgable about what we teach also helps to bring our subjects to life and allows us to demonstrate our joy and enthusiasm for what we are teaching. Being knowledgeable and passionate about what we teach also helps with managing behaviour more effectively.

 

DEVELOPING A KNOWLEDGE RICH CURRICULUM – THE QUESTIONS WE NEED TO ASK

To develop a knowledge rich curriculum, time needs to be invested in considering the following questions at the start of each unit:

 

  • What do our students already know about this topic? Are students able to make connections between what they are learning now and what they have learned previously?
  • What do we want our students to know? (Most important) Debates about what we teach are encouraged.
  • Why do we want students to know this?
  • What key concepts or high-level ideas do we want our students to learn in order to see the world like a historian, economist or geographer?
  • What key terminology do we want our students to learn and use so they write/speak like a historian, economist and geographer?
  • What skills do we want students to develop once they have gained a greater knowledge and understanding of the topic? The ability to think critically, to come up with creative solutions and communicate their ideas effectively.
  • What key overarching knowledge-based inquiry questions do we want to use to guide decisions about what to teach.  For example, Year 8 History Medieval Europe

 

  • How were people ruled in the past?
  • What was it like to live in the past?
  • What did people believe in the past?

 

  • How can we regularly test what students have learnt and use it to inform our teaching on an on-going basis?
  • How will we deliver this knowledge effectively to students? What questioning techniques will we use, how will we explain and model key concepts, how will we provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in the lesson as well as at some point in the future? How will we scaffold tasks to support students and help students develop their understanding further?
  • How will we know that students have demonstrated what we wanted them to learn?

 

The sequence of these questions indicates that WHAT WE TEACH (the curriculum) drives HOW WE TEACH (pedagogy and assessment).  As Ben Newmark states in his excellent blog post Planning a Knowledge Curriculum “To be truly knowledge rich we must ensure what is taught sticks and is built upon”. We can’t just focus on building knowledge without checking that students have remembered what they have learned.

 

HOW A KNOWLEDGE RICH CURRICULUM PREPARES STUDENTS FOR LIFE

A knowledge rich curriculum is crucial in helping students to develop the capabilities required to succeed in life after high school. We want our students to be curious, inquisitive thinkers and seek knowledge for themselves. We want them to interpret and appraise information, be sceptical about the validity and reliability of sources, able to identify bias and respect the merits of different perspectives. This is particularly important in a world where information is so readily available.

 

DEVELOPING LITERACY SKILLS

Being exposed to a more knowledge rich curriculum will help students to read and understand a wider variety of texts, use a larger and more sophisticated vocabulary in their writing, develop a more coherent argument and participate more actively and intelligently in conversations about societies biggest issues.

 

DEVELOPING THE THINKING CAPACITY OF OUR STUDENTS

We do not want learning to simply involve regurgitating unconnected facts. We need to provide time and space for students to think critically and discuss solutions to social or political problems. But this rarely works in an unstructured way where the role of the teacher is simply to facilitate. It occurs when students have built a deep knowledge and understanding of the material being taught.

 

A strong foundation of knowledge allows students to confidently address the big questions they encounter in Humanities classrooms, whether it be evaluating the causes of World War One, determining what the Reserve Bank should do next with interest rates, investigating the different perspectives on climate change or debating the extent to which schools should be  democratic.

 

HOW CAN WE HELP OUR STUDENTS LEARN MORE EFFECTIVELY?

Investing time to plan, debate and refine the curriculum is critical to helping our students learn more effectively. A strong bedrock of knowledge allows our students to engage in the biggest issues of the day as active and informed citizens.

 

If we want our students to think deeply and critically, create, solve problems and ask thoughtful questions they need to access important information in their long term memory. Discovering research in this area over the last couple of years has been a revelation to me. Prioritising knowledge has made me a more effective teacher. Planning doesn’t take as much time and is much simpler and routines based, learning is quicker and understanding is deeper.  I still believe that students need to be given opportunities to think and participate in their learning. There is definitely a place for rich inquiry, investigative, problem solving tasks. These activities provide opportunities for students to thrive and can be highly rewarding for teachers as long as they are structured and underpinned by knowledge.

 

 

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