I’ve got to stop blogging quite so much, but I couldn’t let this pass without comment.

One would expect Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, to be plugged into and more or less represent the latest academic trends in education technology.  If so, I’m a bit scared.

I came across Prof. Wheeler’s blog post from yesterday, “Content as curriculum?” If I had wanted to create a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, repeating the usual logical howlers as if they were somehow deeply persuasive. While I’ve already debunked a lot of this elsewhere, I thought it would be instructive to see that I have not, in fact, exaggerated in my characterization of the anti-intellectualism of some educationists.

Wheeler’s post is so interesting and provocative, I’m going to go through line-by-line.

I think it’s about time we reconsidered the way curricula in schools are presented. The tired, just in case model of curriculum just doesn’t make sense anymore. Content is still very much king in schools, because ‘content as curriculum’ is easy and cost effective to deliver, and that is what most governments require and impose.

“Curriculum” is a very slippery term.  Wheeler here appears to mean “whatever can be taught.” Later, he later brings out a distinction, familiar to philosophers, between declarative knowledge (knowledge that, “I know that 2+2=4”) and procedural knowledge (knowledge how, “I know how to ride a bicycle”). Wheeler’s main thesis seems to be that schools should concentrate on teaching procedural knowledge much more and declarative knowledge even less. So we can unpack the title of the blog post, “Content as curriculum?”: he is skeptical that “content,” or stuff that students might gain declarative knowledge of, should be the focus of the “curriculum,” or what is taught.  The curriculum, he seems to maintain, should be practice, skills–not content.

In other words, if you strip away the edu-speak, Wheeler is saying that students should be taught a lot less declarative knowledge. Since this is what we ordinarily mean by “knowledge,” we can put it even more simply: Wheeler is opposed to teachers imparting knowledge.

Now, this might sound like a ridiculous oversimplification of Wheeler’s views. But if so, that’s not my fault, it’s Wheeler’s. If you read his blog post, you’ll see that I’m not being uncharitable in my interpretation. I’m simply explaining what he means. If there were any doubts or question that he really means this, he makes it all too clear in the next paragraphs, as we’ll see.

But most teachers will tell you it’s not the best approach.

I’m sure that teachers would be surprised to learn that their peers believe it’s “not the best approach” to use “content,” or what can be learned as declarative knowledge, as the “curriculum.” All I can say is, I hope he’s wrong. To be sure, there are some teachers out there who have great contempt for books and what I would call substantial learning. But surely they are still a minority.

When I went to school I was required to attend classes in mathematics, English language and literature, science (physics, biology, chemistry), history, geography, music, art, Religious Education, craft and design, home economics, German and French – all just in case I might need them later in life. With the exception of a few subjects, my schooling didn’t make that much sense to me.

…and it appears that how these traditional subjects are useful to him “later in life” still doesn’t make sense to him.  I’ll enlighten him below.

Occasionally I hear someone saying “I’m glad I took Latin at school”, and then arguing that it helped them to discover the name of a fish they caught whilst out angling on holiday. Well, knowing that thalassoma bifasciatum is a blue-headed wrasse may be wonderful for one’s self esteem. It may impress your friends during a pub quiz, but it won’t get you a job…. and was it really worth all those hours learning how to conjugate amo, amas, amat simply to be able to one day identify a strange fish, when all you need to do in the digital mobile age is Google it?

Here, finally, we get the hint of an argument: the reason that Latin, and presumably all those other subjects, are not “needed” in the curriculum is that we can Google that information. Actual knowledge of those subjects is not needed–because we’ve got Google.

But does he really mean that all those subjects he listed, and Latin, are not needed?

The question is, how much do children now need to learn in school that is knowledge based? Do children really need to know what a phrasal verb is, or that William Shakespeare died in 1616 when what they really need to be able to do is write a coherent and convincing job application or construct a relevant CV? We call this type of learning declarative knowledge, because it is ‘knowing that’ – in other words, the learning of facts. Yet, in a post-modernist world where all knowledge has become increasingly mutable and open to challenge, facts go quickly out of date. I was taught in school that there are nine planets orbiting the sun. Today it appears that Pluto is no longer a planet (but for me he will always be a cartoon dog). Is it Myanmar or Burma? I was told by my geography teacher it was Burma. Then she was right, now she is wrong. Just when did Mao Tse-tung change his name to Mao Zedong? And is the atom still the smallest object known to humankind? No. Now we have something called quantum foam. Apparently it’s great for holding the universe together but pretty useless in a wet shave. You see, facts are changing all the time, and very little appears to remain concrete. So why are teachers wasting their own time, and that of the kids, teaching them facts which in a few years time may be utterly out of date?

Yep. He means it.

Now, look, I don’t know how many times I need to repeat the arguments against this sort of nonsense–I think I did a pretty good job in “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age“–but it won’t hurt to rehearse a few of them briefly:

1. Much of the declarative knowledge that matters, and which requires time and energy to learn, is not of the sort that can be gained by looking it up in Google.  You can read some quick analysis of the causes of the Great Depression, but you won’t really know them until you’ve studied the subject.

2. Most accepted knowledge doesn’t change, even over a lifetime.  Fine, Pluto’s no longer a planet.  The others are.  99% of what we knew about the solar system 50 years ago has not been disconfirmed.  Most new knowledge adds detail; it does not render old knowledge useless.  (Besides, the professor would not be able to cite this as an example if he had not learned that Pluto was a planet; he couldn’t be an articulate, plugged-in thinker without his “useless” declarative knowledge, which he could count on other educated people sharing.)

3. Understanding an answer usually requires substantial background knowledge.  Suppose I want to know when Shakespeare died, and I find out that it is 1616.  But suppose I haven’t memorized any dates.  Then this information, “1616,” means absolutely nothing whatsoever to me.  It is, at best, a meaningless piece of trivia to me.  Only if I have studied enough history, and yes, memorized enough dates, will 1616 begin to have some significance to me.  I wonder if Wheeler thinks the date doesn’t matter, period, because Shakespeare doesn’t matter, period. After all, if that date isn’t important, is any important?

4. Most vocabulary is learned in context of copious reading.  If schools start teaching “procedural knowledge” instead of “declarative knowledge,” then the vocabulary and conceptual stockpile of students will be so poor that they can’t understand the answers they Google.  (They certainly wouldn’t be able to understand this blog post.)

5. Finally, declarative knowledge is its own reward.  Understanding the universe is a joy in itself, one of the deepest and most important available to us.   You are a cretin if this point means nothing to you.

Mainly what I think is interesting here is that this is a professor of education, and he is espousing flat-out, pure, unadulterated anti-intellectualism. An educator opposed to teaching knowledge–it’s like a chemist opposed to chemicals–a philosopher opposed to thinking. Beyond the sheer madness of the thing, just look at how simple-minded the argument is, and from what appears to be a rather distinguished academic. I actually find this rather sobering and alarming, as I said. It’s one thing to encounter such sentiments in academic jargon, with sensible hedging and qualifications, or made by callow, unreflective students; it’s another to encounter them in a heartfelt blog post in which, clearly, a serious theorist is airing some of his deeply-held views in forceful language.

Wheeler goes on:

Should we not instead be maximising school contact time by teaching skills, competencies, literacies? After all, it is the ability to work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions that will be the common currency in the world of future work. Being able to think critically and create a professional network will be the core competencies of the 21st Century knowledge worker. Knowing how – or procedural knowledge – will be a greater asset for most young people. You see, the world of work is in constant change, and that change is accelerating.

There was never a time in history in which “ability to work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions” were not significant advantages in the work world.  These are not new features.

Another point that seems to be completely lost on those who make such sophomoric arguments as the above is that having a deep well of conceptual understanding is itself absolutely necessary to the ability to “work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions.”  It’s even more important for the ability to “think critically.”  This is why philosophy graduates famously excel in the business world.  They are trained to think through problems.  Difficult problem solving requires abstract thinking, and the only way to train a person to think effectively and abstractly is by tackling such difficult academic subjects as science, history, classic literature, and philosophy.  Besides, the skills and knowledge learned in these subjects frequent provide a needed edge in fields that require a mathematician’s accuracy, a historian’s eye to background, a litterateur’s or psychologist’s grasp of human nature, or a philosopher’s clarity of thought.

Besides, not only has declarative knowledge mostly not changed, procedural knowledge changes much faster–which is probably part of the reason it was not taught in schools, for a long time, apart from a few classes.  The specific skills for the work world were, and largely still are, learned on the job.  So let’s see, which would have been better for me to learn back in 1985, when I was 17: all the ins and outs of WordPerfect and BASIC, or U.S. History?  There should be no question at all: what I learned about history will remain more or less the same, subject to a few corrections; skills in WordPerfect and BASIC are not longer needed.

My 16 year old son has just embarked on training to become a games designer. If, when I was his age I had told my careers teacher that I wanted to be a games designer, he would have asked me whether I wanted to make cricket bats or footballs. Jobs are appearing that didn’t exist even a year or two ago. Other jobs that people expected to be in for life are disappearing or gone forever. Ask the gas mantel fitters or VHS repair technicians. Ask the tin miners, the lamplighters or the typewriter repair people. Er, sorry you can’t ask them. They don’t exist anymore.

I don’t quite understand Wheeler’s point here.  His 16-year-old son is training to become a games designer, at an age when Wheeler and I were spending our time learning “mathematics, English language and literature, science (physics, biology, chemistry), history, geography, music, art,” etc.  By contrast, his son’s early training in games design is supposed to help him in twenty or thirty years–when games will be exactly the same as they are today?  I thought the point was that things like game design change very fast.  Well, I don’t know his circumstances, but my guess is that his son would be better off learning the more abstract, relatively unchanging kind of knowledge, providing a foundation, or scaffolding, that will make it easier to learn particular, changeable things later, as well as communicate more effectively with other well-educated people.  Here I hint at another argument for declarative knowledge, E.D. Hirsch’s: it provides us an absolutely essential common culture, which makes it possible for Wheeler and I to understand each other, at least as well as we do.  Ask entrepreneurs you know and they’ll tell you: the ability to communicate quickly, precisely, and in general effectively is a deeply important ability to have in a employee.  You don’t often gain that ability on the job; you develop it, or not, by studying various modes of communication.

Why do some teachers still provide children with answers when all the answers are out there on the Web? Contemporary pedagogy is only effective if there is a clear understanding of the power and efficacy of the tools that are available. Shakespeare may well have died in 1616, but surely anyone can look this up on Wikipedia if and when they need to find out for themselves? …

Well, here’s another puzzling thing to say.  Teachers don’t “provide children with answers.”  If they are doing their jobs properly, they are getting children to learn and understand the answers (and the questions).  A teacher is not a search engine.  Moreover, it’s unconscionable that a trainer of teachers would pretend that what teachers do can be done by a search engine.

Get them using the digital tools they are familiar with to go find the knowledge they are unfamiliar with. After all, these are the tools they carry around with them all the time, and these are the tools they will be using when they enter the world of work. And these are the tools that will mould them into independent learners in preparation for challenging times ahead.

“Digital tools” will “mould them into independent learners”?  I’ve heard a lot of things about digital tools, but never that they would make an independent learner out of a student.

If you want to make an independent learner, you have to get them, at a minimum, interested in the world around them–in all of its glorious aspects, preferably, including natural, social, political, mathematical, geographical, philosophical, and so forth.  If they aren’t interested in those rich, fascinating aspects of the world–and why should they be, if their teachers dismiss such knowledge as “useless”?–they’ll no doubt only be interested in the easiest-to-digest entertainment pablum.  Why think they’ll get very interested in how to build software if they haven’t been led to be curious about the facts about how software, or the world generally, works?  Surely Wheeler’s son has learned some facts that have provided essential scaffolding for his interest in computer programming.

I don’t think digital tools, and the mere ability to use them, will make curious, independent learners out of people all by themselves.  Most of all, we need exposure to the content of thought, concerning the natural world and our place in it; then we need to be given the freedom to seek out the answers on our own time.  I don’t support the idea of spoon-feeding information–that’s what poor teachers do, as well as search engines, come to think of it.  I think students should be challenged to read deeply and reflect on what they read.  That’s the tried and true way to make a curious, independent learner.

We need to move with the times, and many schools are still lagging woefully behind the current needs of society. Why do we compartmentalise our subjects in silos? When will we begin to realise that all subjects have overlaps and commonalities, and children need to understand these overlaps to obtain a clear and full picture of their world. Without holistic forms of education, no-one is going to make the link between science and maths, or understand how art or music have influenced history. Some schools such as Albany Senior High School in Auckland are already breaking down the silos and supporting learning spaces where students can switch quickly between ‘subjects’ across the curriculum. Other schools are beginning to realise that ICT is not a subject and shouldn’t be taught, but is best placed as embedded across the entire curriculum.

To answer Wheeler’s no doubt rhetorical question, we study various special subjects independently for the reason that there is no other efficient way to learn those subjects.  To be sure, it makes sense to learn the humanities all together, in historical order.  Other subjects might, perhaps, be usefully combined.  But if you make a big melange of it, you’ll find that the subjects simply can’t be mastered nearly as quickly.  You have to spend a significant amount of time on a subject before the neurons really start firing.  If you’re always skipping around from this to that, on the basis of rough analogies and not more substantive conceptual relationships (as become clear when you study anything systematically), you never get the extremely significant advantages that accrue from studying things that are conceptually closely related at about the same time.

But if, like Wheeler, you don’t think that declarative knowledge of academic subjects is especially important, and you can’t grasp what importance abstract conceptual dependencies might have for enhancing understanding, communication, and curiosity, then, no.  You might not think there’s any point in focusing on particular subjects.

So, no, “moving with the times” does not require that our children arrive at adulthood as ignoramuses.

It’s about time we all woke up and realised that the world around us is changing, and schools need to change too. After all, the school still remains the first and most important place to train and prepare young people for work. If we don’t get it right in school, we are storing up huge problems for the future. Education is not life and death. It’s much more important than that.

Didn’t Wheeler ever learn plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose in his French class?  The pace of change has been increasing, no doubt.  But the world has been changing fairly quickly for the last 150 years, and one of the classic arguments for liberal arts education–something that I can’t imagine Wheeler actually endorsing, given what he’s written–is precisely that the liberal arts enable us to deal with such changes by giving us a solid foundation, a mature (not to say perfect or unchanging) comprehension of the natural and social world.  They also give us the ability to think and communicate more deeply and accurately about new and changing things.

A student well educated in the liberal arts, who has “memorized”–and really understood–a boatload of “mere facts,” will be far better prepared to meet the changes of the coming century than someone who is well trained in the use of digital technology to talk at random about things of which he has been left tragically ignorant.