I had a really scary lecturer at university once. She was the sort of woman who had the sort of reputation that preceded her; I expect half of the academics in the department were frightened of her too. One of the things that always got me was you could never quite be sure who she was looking at, who would be the next victim of her incisive questioning.
I was that person rather too often for my liking. Then, as now, I had a tendency to make sweeping statements, to activate my mouth before my brain, and she was never prepared to let one get past her. Her favourite comment was, ‘now, let’s unpack that statement,’ and I would have to explain myself. In detail. With appropriate evidence. It was a pain in the behind.
That said, without her, I wouldn’t have done as well as I did, and I wouldn’t have learned the more important lesson of defining exactly what I meant when I spoke, or wrote. In those days, my definitions circled mostly around the concepts of gender, race and class, but I made regular forays into justice, morals and politics – my statements about which I was regularly forced to unpack, with varying degrees of success. It’s one of the reasons I am not one of those bloggers who seem able to bang out a post on the latest debate before the day is out. I need time; time to process what I want to say, what I really mean.
It is this experience that makes the the Great Education Knowledge and Skills Debate one of the most irritating things I read. We have a tendency to bang on about our own particular enthusiasms, but we make mistakes when we assume that all of us in education are the same, or worse, should be the same. We play with words like Learning, Knowledge and Skills, discuss styles of teaching, get very heated over ideas such as a the correct way to teach A, B or C (usually Maths or reading), and I find myself increasingly confused.
This whole knowledge/skills debate is a nightmare for a teacher like me. You see, I don’t just teach one subject. Back in the days when I was thinking about what I might do with my Life after Graduation (my main aim before graduation was to be an undergraduate, so it took me a while to decide what I might do with myself afterwards), I discussed the possibility of teaching with a friendly careers advisor. Now don’t get me wrong. I love history. I think it is possibly the best subject to study in the world, like, ever, but I am not a history teacher. I may have spouted on about how I didn’t want to try to teach the subject I love, that I am so passionate about, to disaffected youth who really couldn’t care less, but the truth is a little more prosaic that that. I didn’t want to be bored. (Sorry, secondary teachers, I only thought about teaching the same subject and didn’t think about the challenges of teaching more than one age-group. I was shallow.)
There is this marvellous variety in primary teaching, you see. One minute it’s Maths, and Science, and the next it’s PE and Art and Drama and Music. And with each subject, a different style, a different set of skills and knowledge, a different balance between the two is required. I enjoy teaching primary Maths. I’m no great mathematician, but I (hope) I do a good job with KS2. I have a very traditional style in my lessons (although I’m not the biggest fan of sitting children in rows); where there are lots of times tables, and rulers, and pernickety numbers in squares and decimal points on lines.
But I don’t teach Music the way I teach Maths. I don’t teach Games the way I teach Music, or History, or Writing, or Reading. It’s different. I need to employ a different kind of teaching for each subject, and there is a different blend of knowledge and skills for each too. A different blend for each aspect of each subject. And when I teach each of these different subjects, I have different groups of children, different set of skills and knowledge present in each class. And that’s before I have taken into account the blend of personalities and possible learning difficulties present.
When I think about Sam, when I think about how hard he finds every damn thing, how hard won is his knowledge, I wonder how we can possibly try to separate the two. He knows how to write his name, but without the skill in his soft little fingers he can’t do it. He knows how to play football, but it’s not much fun if he hasn’t mastered the skill of kicking the ball, rather than stepping on it and bouncing, face flat, onto the playground or into the mud.
When it comes down to it, what children need is not just knowledge. What these children need is not just skills. Reading isn’t just phonics and it isn’t just real words. Maths isn’t just recall of facts, but understanding how to apply them. Children need a blend of knowledge and skill and each day, each lesson, each moment in school, and beyond, is an exercise in that blend. It’s decoding and understanding. Recall and application.
The results of all our endeavours rest there, not in a regurgitated exam paper; in the child who wants to learn, who is enthused by the prospect of discovering more about the world around them, and who has the skills and knowledge, blended, to go about doing just that.
I hope I’ve unpacked that enough to make her feel like she did a good job.
This post forms part of @Edutronic_Net ‘s excellent February #blogsync