Tag Archives: subject disciplines

Knowledge vs. habits of mind (oh, and how many spokes does the London Eye have?)

I finished Guy Claxton’s new book – What’s the point of school?  a couple of days ago, just in time to chair a panel debate yesterday at the RSAat which he was the main speaker (the audio will be on the RSA site in the next few day).

This past few weeks’ convulsions in the banking system have illustrated that the modern world is full challenge and uncertainty, as well as opportunity. Against this backdrop, Guy argues convincingly that if the primary job of education is to prepare young people to thrive in that world, then practitioners, parents, and the public at large need to think again about school and how it is practiced. It is perverse to watch the effects ripple out from a breaking economic system so complex that none know how to fix it, and then to keep our thinking about school stuck in the old ‘dead metaphors’ of the monastery or the factory.

To make the change we need, Guy says we need to focus less on the reverence and passivity to authoritative knowledge implied in these old ways of thinking, and more on learning and the processes which awaken a desire and capability to learn in everyone.  

At the panel, there was a dangerous outbreak of consensus in the room.

That was until one important point of doubt was raised by Dylan William, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education. He picked up a point similar to the one I raised in my previous post about knowledge and subject disciplines. Dylan asked the audience to close their eyes and picture the London Eye. He then asked for suggestions about how many spokes it had. The answers ranged from four to two hundred.

Dylan then cheerfully announced that he hadn’t a clue either, but what was interesting is that trained mathematicians always gave an answer that was a multiple of four. They are, he says, incapable of suggesting it might be thirty-seven, or an equally random or odd number. Meanwhile, historians would probably be off looking for a source of bias to the question.

His point being that a discipline like maths can profoundly shape the way we see the world. More than collections of information, these bodies of knowledge, theoretical frameworks, skills mould our minds, our intuition and the ways tend to think.

More than ever we will need these disciplines to lead us intuitively to the important, reliable knowledge we need in an ever more complex world. In a media age where so many can amplify their voice, they can tell us what kinds of answers to our questions we should be picking out in the cacophony.

Again I was left asking questions we don’t seem to have good answers for just yet. In a future which rightly emphasises generic competences and habits of mind, what is the role of such subject disciplines? How do we make sure we lead the next generation to the point that the young student in class today is an amazing all-round, lifelong learner, but can also specialise and be a physicist if that is what she wants?

I look forward to carrying on this conversation here, and at future RSA events.


1 Comment

Filed under Misc.

Moving on from Knowledge vs. Skills

As we get to the end of the party conference season, it is clear that the Conservative’s message of increasing schools freedoms and championing of the Swedish system is beginning to resonate with teachers.


There is a second half to their message which gets less coverage, but is of just as much importance. I sat on a panel with Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Schools at a Conservative Party fringe event held by the New Statesman, and supported by Edge. Nick argued passionately that we needed to ensure an academic curriculum for all, and to counter the progressive ideology he perceived as driving knowledge out of the curriculum in favour of, amongst other things, teaching ‘soft skills’.


I was there advocating the approach of the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum which is now used by over 200 schools to explicitly teach a range of competences around such things as learning, and relating to people. The RSA remain committed to the idea that schooling must change if it is to be relevant to the lives of students and the challenges we face – for a quick overview, check out the first paragraphs of the RSA Charter for Education in the 21st Century (and please do sign up!)


I must admit, I wasn’t the most popular guy in the room, which is a shame as I was trying to sound a conciliatory note.


Nick has a point. Progressives must find a better response to the problem of knowledge. Up to now, many have argued that in a connected world where knowledge is generated and spread so quickly, it is useless to emphasise traditional subject knowledge and disciplines. By the time students leave school the world will have moved on, so what good would it do them to have learned this stuff? Better instead to teach the skills so they can run to keep up.


Well, sort of. This kind of thinking must be tempered by the observation that the main theoretical frameworks, the core ideas and skills within a subject discipline don’t change quite as fast as progressive rhetoric has asserted.


That doesn’t mean that progressives have been wrong to emphasise the importance of a more learner centred approach, taking account of student voice about what and how they wish to learn, and of engaging students by immersing them in practical and experiential learning. Quite the opposite. The OECD reported just a few weeks ago that, going by international comparison, our top-end students do very well academically. Where the UK falls down is with its middle and low performing students who go through the motions of testing but don’t appear to learn a lot, and drop out early.


This indicates schools, who have had to push a content-heavy, test-focussed curriculum taught in a traditional didactic fashion, have struggled to respond to the needs of many students.


We need to move this debate on.


I believe conservatives should take consider more seriously the changing context to schooling, and the need to adapt in order to create a more relevant and engaging experience at school.Progressives can seize the initiative by facing up to the tough question of knowledge. What is the appropriate role of subject disciplines in future? Many Opening Minds schools use topics or projects to increase the relevance of teaching, which integrate the content of several subjects. What have they learned about making such inter-disciplinarity rigorous and strong? How do they ensure that their students are equipped with both the skills and the knowledge to go on and fulfil their potential and ambitions?


– Ian McGimpsey 


Filed under Misc., Opening Minds