Cognitive scientists tell us that learning is the processing of information in the working memory which is then transferred to the long-term memory. In turn, knowledge is stored in the long-term memory within networks of related information called schemas. Under this analysis, in thinking about the difference between the novice and the expert, a distance we are always striving to traverse in education, then the expert is considered to have large amounts of background knowledge, or expansive schemas, stored in their long-term memory. Not only does this mean they know more, but it also enables them to think quicker as their working memory is not taken up processing information; instead information is retrieved automatically from long-term memory for application. The more they know, the faster they seem to become. This is my experience too. The children who know more, think faster and pick up the next things I teach much faster too. Knowledge builds knowledge it seems; skill then manifests through the ability to retrieve the appropriate knowledge and apply it as required.
According to cognitive science then, ‘skills’ are not generic actions that we can carry around from one subject area to another, but rather skills are the application of domain specific knowledge. Because of this, skills like critical thinking for example, are something that cannot be taught in and of themselves as effective critical thinking requires background knowledge – or stuff to think critically about. So far, I can’t find much in my daily experience as a teacher to contradict this, but I’m also aware of jumping onto educational band wagons, although the fact that this has research and evidence to support it, makes it compelling.
Who would disagree that expertise is about possessing expansive knowledge and applying that skillfully? Yet a doctor cannot transfer her skill of critically thinking through a diagnosis and finding a cure, to for example, diagnosing what’s wrong with her car and fixing it. If she had the same background knowledge of the internal combustion engine as she did the human body then yes, but here she doesn’t so her adept ability to think critically when faced with a sick patient, just doesn’t transfer. This also makes some sense to me, but I also think there are some overarching general skills or competencies that must transfer like staying calm under pressure, being resilient when at first you aren’t successful, recognising when you need help etc. Perhaps these aren’t skills, but they are facets of mental processing that we can talk about, reflect on, cultivate and practise so perhaps they are?
However, this current idea that education should be based on knowledge acquisition, rather than generic skills, the independent existence of which scholars debate fiercly, makes some sense to me when I think about the children I teach. The children who appear more skilled in an area always seem to know more about that topic. I also recognise that in project work or problem-solving tasks, it is again, the children who know more who fair better, but I’m not a cognitive scientist and this is purely anecdotal.
One area that also makes sense to me is what Hirsch says about reading skills. According to Hirsch, we try to teach children comprehension skills such as ‘finding the main idea,’ or ‘summarising a text’ or ‘scanning to find answers.’ For Hirsch, effective reading skills lie in knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding. For him, we can teach children ‘finding the main idea’ until we’re blue in the face, but give them a text about a subject they have no knowledge about and they will struggle to find that main idea. And when this happens, we are not testing their reading skills, but rather their knowledge and understanding.
Put like this, our reading tests in this country, test breadth of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition rather than this thing called ‘reading skills’; this is unless of course we assert that once decoding skills are secure, breadth of knowledge and vocabulary understanding are in fact reading skills? In which case, why try to teach skills like ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘summarising a text’. The teaching focus should then be on knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding surely?
And if this is true, then these reading tests aren’t a fair measure of reading skills at all, because rather than measure what we have supposedly taught, ‘the skill of reading,’ they instead measure the background knowledge children might possess in a range of random topics which may or may not have been taught, or they may or may not have come across in life. As more affluent children tend to have a wider range of knowledge acquiring experiences and vocabulary understanding through, not least, all those holidays, visits to zoos and museums and clubs etc, then they tend to do better at reading tests, despite being taught the same skills in schools, such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘summarising’, ‘predicting’ and all those other generic reading skills we have thought make the effective reader.
Again, I’m drawn to this idea, but I’m not completely convinced yet. It does have resonance with my experience, but I’d still like more evidence, although anecdotally I feel I have my own. Take last year’s KS1 reading test. On paper 1, there was a fictional story about a boy who has his cousin coming to visit. It turns out the cousin is a baby and so can’t play with him so he’s disappointed. Most children who could decode effectively and read fluently did well on this section. Most children have cousins and have had them to come and play. They also know about babies and that they can’t play with trucks etc. Essentially the knowledge base for this section was simply common knowledge for 6 and 7 years old. Fine.
Then there was the non-fiction section on paper 1. This is where things started to change. This section started off being about pack lunches – great, children know about pack lunches. But it soon changed to being about bread making. The main vocabulary was familiar only to those children who had perhaps made bread before or been out to the countryside and seen grain harvested, or who had learnt about how grain is harvested and turned into flour at some point at home. This is not specific to anything required in the national curriculum, and even though we had done some pizza making that year, we hadn’t talked about how flour was made – damn!
Admittedly, we were allowed to introduce the specialised vocabulary and establish the meaning before the test, but if what we know about working memory is true, being told the meaning of five brand new words just before a large amount of cognitive load is put upon the working memory in the form of a test, means that for most children that information would have been lost the minute the children started reading the first questions and trying to work out what to do. The children who knew about bread making were at an advantage from the start. The children who knew nothing about turning wheat into flour then bread would have had to work harder in the test.
It is no surprise to me that children did better on the first part of paper 1. This experience could support what scholars like Willingham, Bjork and Christodoulou are saying about generic skills, and in particular what Hirsch says about reading. The question I ask myself is, how different would the results of that test have been if we had completed a project on farming and bread making that year so that they were familiar with words like dough and yeast? If the class next door had done that project and not us, would it have been a fair reading test for us both or would it have been simply testing whether the class next door learned the content in their bread making project?
At the same time, I am acutely aware that in education we pick up new ideas and get over excited far too easily. I know I have in the past. All of this current research does have randomised control trials behind it and robust evidence if I am to believe what I read, but education has suffered from pendulums swinging so far they other way that everything slides to the end of the deck and we start tripping up on everything. We have to be wary. We cannot go back to learning lists of facts that will never be any use to anyone, but no one has suggested that, not once in fact. Certainly, acquiring a breadth of knowledge in order to apply that to problems and investigations makes sense in the light of what we now know. We have nothing to lose if we stick with bringing theory and practice together. My hope is that we all try hard to use evidence rather than feelings, or attachments to the ways we have always done things. We might think and feel something is right, but we might be completely wrong. If we accept this as a profession, we will help ourselves a great deal. A head teacher I respect a great deal said to me recently, ‘ we need to challenge ourselves and sometimes that’s uncomfortable’. I agree.
The evidence from cognitive science is compelling and should prompt leaders and teachers to think about how they teach and what they teach and the impact this has on learners. So many times, new things have come along, but little has changed. Poor children haven’t done any better; the attainment gap continues, like a line draw in concrete, hard to shift. This research on learning, memory and knowledge acquisition suggests that a knowledge rich curriculum could be a better way to address this, rather than through the generic skills route that we have tried for a long time without much change. I think it’s worth going further with this, mindful of the mistakes of the distant past of course and with a close eye on the kind of knowledge that will help ALL children really fly forward.
And lastly, why not purposely base reading tests on age appropriate curricular knowledge instead of topics like bread making, juice pressing or bee keeping or adventures on safari? Let’s give the kids who learn most of their knowledge of the world in school a fighting chance!