Tag Archives: knowledge

The variable obscenity of knowledge

“Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This was the question famously asked by prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones to the Old Bailey jury at the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Griffith-Jones’ implication was that the book should be available for the pleasure of men of a certain class. But he was at pains to suggest that the morally vulnerable working class and the equally “intellectually and morally fragile” female readers should be protected from being exposed to the novel. The jury laughed: three of them were women and most of them were working class men who would have found the idea of having live-in servants extraordinary.

Griffith-Jones’ question has lived on in infamy, but it was the only time during the trial that he actually mentioned wives and servants. Much of his case relied on the fear that the book would make it into the hands of working-class boys. It is clear that the prosecution was targeting the already marginalised members of society.

The principle that the authorities would wish to ban publication of a text for a mass audience that it would happily allow for a privileged readership has since been given the term ‘variable obscenity’ (Hunter et al. 1993): it is obscene for the poor, but not for the privileged.

We can see the same principle of variability in some attitudes towards pupils receiving a knowledge-rich education. It is often the case that such attitudes are displayed by people privileged enough to be rich with knowledge themselves.

Take for example, this letter to Michael Gove, signed by 100 education academics, urging him to change his proposed knowledge-rich curriculum to one of “problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”. Such academics have achieved their status through an accumulation of knowledge within their field: their ability to problem solve, think critically and be creative is a function of that wealth of knowledge, as Daniel Willingham suggests here.

Or when this headteacher decried how he “suffered” a grammar school education “constricted by academic content” and, elsewhere, complained that an “emphasis on content and knowledge over creativity and enjoyment” gives us a curriculum that “both pupils and teachers are bored with”.  One can’t help but notice that such an academic education set him up on his path to be a successful headteacher and writer. Why is this content-rich curriculum not desirable for our pupils too?

Or what about earlier this month when a Stanford professor told us that education isn’t about knowing things because “in today’s world, when information is at our fingertips, we don’t need to go to school to learn facts and figures — a quick Google search, a glance at Wikipedia, or a question posed to Siri will usually result in answers to specific questions.” Do you get to be a Stanford professor with Google, Wikipedia and Siri, or is that just an education reserved for the rest of us?

You don’t have to look very far to find successful people privileged with deep and broad knowledge in their domains telling us that kids should prioritise soft skills like creativity over knowledge.

In such a way, they seem to echo the attitude of Griffith-Jones and the idea that a work of literature is of variable obscenity. Just as society’s privileged back then suggested that the book in question was acceptable for them but not for the general public, so the academically privileged seem to suggest that a rich knowledge is something they can cope with, but is detrimental to the young.

I’d even suggest that not only have such people coped with learning an abundance of knowledge, this beautiful, rich knowledge has been the key to their success.

Next time a successful educationalist decries a focus on domain knowledge and extols the virtues of soft skills in its place, ask yourself: how much knowledge did they need to build to get where they are today? What facts did they need to learn? What knowledge did they need to commit to memory? How much repetition and revisiting did they need to undertake in order to remember, manipulate and apply this knowledge? How much content did they need to study? How many books did they need to read? And are any of those books ones that you would wish your pupils to read? Or should we hold our pupils to a variable standard?

The Knowledge

“So, you’re wanting to be a London cabbie, then? Hope you’re prepared to put in all the hard work it takes to do the job? All the study?” asked the slightly gruff, porcine man.

“Er, yes. I’ve just got the Blue Book, and I’ve started trying to learn the roads and runs and that…” replied the enthusiastic young man.

“The what? Oh, yeh, you won’t be needing that. The Blue Book, I mean. We don’t really use that anymore for studying to be a cabbie.”

“You don’t… I mean, I don’t need the Blue Book? But it’s got all the runs and routes in it? The ones I… I mean, I thought the Blue Book was the main source of, you know… The Knowledge.”

The gruff man snorted. “‘The Knowledge’? Yeh, we don’t call it that anymore.”

The young man knotted his brow. “Huh? What do you mean? Why don’t you…?”

“Yeh, we don’t call it The Knowledge anymore. I mean knowledge is important, of course. But the people at Transport for London realised that it was more important to have higher order skills. They decided that we need cabbies who can analyse the routes, evaluate them and create new runs. No good just knowing the runs. Here, it’s all based on this.” The gruff man pointed to a poster on his wall:


“See?” he continued. “These things are much more important than the knowledge itself, so we focus on those instead.”

“Oh, right.” said the young man, perplexed. ” So how would I go about learning the… erm…”

“We now call it The Skills. As I say, The Knowledge isn’t really a thing anymore.”

“Right. So… how would I go about learning, The, er, Skills? I mean, I suppose I still need to learn the routes and runs first, right? I’d have to know that stuff first, wouldn’t I?”

“Hey, I’m not saying knowledge isn’t important. We all know it’s the foundation on which the higher order skills are built. We’re not that stupid.”

“Okay. I was a little worried then that I wouldn’t get the chance to do  The Knowledge…”

“We don’t call it that…”

“Yeh, of course. I mean, I was worried I wouldn’t get to learn all the routes and runs. My old man was a cabbie and he prided himself on learning The Kno… on knowing his way around London. I’d like to follow in his footsteps. So how do I go about learning the runs? What sort of time frame are we talking about?”

“I tell you what: you take your Blue Book out into the lobby and sit and read it for a bit. When you’ve got an idea of some of the runs, we’ll get you started on The Skills; the higher order stuff. I’m going for a coffee and a fag. Shall we say half an hour?”

“Half an hour?” The young man’s mouth hung open for a few seconds, before he snapped it shut and composed himself. “Doesn’t it take years to really know this stuff? I thought you said knowledge is the foundation…”

“Oh, it is. It is. We’d be stupid if we said it wasn’t. But it’s also really important to make sure that you are able to do the higher order stuff too. You go and get some of your knowledge and then when I’m back, we’ll sort out your tickets for your trip to Mumbai. I take it you are available to fly this week?”

“Yes, I’m… wait… what? Fly…? Mumbai…? This week…?”

“Yeh. Mumbai’s the best place, usually. But if you’d rather do Shanghai, we can…”

“Why would I need to go to Mumbai?” The young man was utterly perplexed. “I want to be a cabbie in London. I want to… I want to…”

“You need to do a placement overseas in order to learn The Skills. You’ll basically need to apply your knowledge to the streets of Mumbai. You’ll go there and learn how to evaluate and analyse and to be creative. Then you can come back to London and apply those skills so you can drive around better. Honestly, you’ll like Mumbai. Or Shanghai. Whichever you choose. I mean, if either of those are really a problem for you, I suppose we could send you to New York…”

“I don’t have a problem with those places… I mean, I do have a problem with them in that they aren’t London! It’s not the places themselves. I just want to be cabbie in London so I need to learn about London streets! Why would I…?”

“The Skills, son. You’ll need to learn The Skills. As I said before, you’ll need to learn how to create new routes. You’ll need to learn how to evaluate which route to take in rush hour or where to divert if there’s been an accident. You’ll need to analyse traffic reports in order to ensure you have all the details. Those things are really important. Higher order, innit?”

“But won’t it be better if I just learn The Knowledge…”

“We don’t use that…” the gruff man insisted.

“If I just learned… The Knowledge,” the young man darted a forceful look at his interlocutor as he mouthed the words, “I could just apply that knowledge to what I needed to do. The Knowledge would ensure that I’d know what routes to take at certain times. The Knowledge would mean that analysis and evaluation and creation would be more-or-less automatic: I’d be able to make quick decisions of analysis and evaluation and change my route using the knowledge I’d have of the runs. I’d be able to create new runs without really thinking too hard. Why do I need to learn these skills in a different place and then try and apply those skills to the place where I actually need to use them? It doesn’t make sense. I understand that creativity and evaluation and analysis are important to a cabbie, but these are things that just spring forth from a sound understanding of The Knowledge. I don’t need to learn creativity as a discrete skill. It’s nonsense.” The young man sunk back into his seat.

“Right. I see.” The gruff man looked thoughtful, but not entirely dejected. Then he smiled, and spoke again. “You have a problem with the Bloom’s taxonomy approach to cabbie training? I understand that. It’s not the way you like to learn things. You don’t think you need to learn creativity. That’s okay.”

The young man looked on, breathless. The gruff man continued. “There is another approach to cabbie training we could use. You’ll like this one.”

He pointed to another poster, this time on the adjoining wall.

“Now, at the moment, you are at the SOLO Prestructural stage. But what if we got you thinking about driving a cab in an Extended Abstract way….”

Knowledge is obsolete! Unburden yourself here…

I have been following the tweets from Northern Rocks with interest. As always with education conferences, there are some really smart ideas tossed out and hashtagged for posterity. But every now and again one of these edu-summits spews out a thought that is a real game changer.

I think this may be that very thought:

Yep: Knowledge is becoming obsolete. It’s over. It’s done for. It’ll soon be pushing up the daisies. This is brilliant news.

Think of everything we could do without knowledge cluttering up our brains? Actually… don’t think of everything we could do! The beauty of knowledge obsolescence is that you don’t have to think at all.

So what should we do with all this knowledge we’ve already accumulated? If knowledge is truly becoming obsolete, we could unburden ourselves of the knowledge we have already acquired and free our brains up for other, more important stuff.

I’m sold on this. It’s the way forward. So I have a proposition. A proposition for others, like me, who believe that knowledge is obsolete. We can just look up stuff we need now, so we don’t need to really know anything. Let’s put our money where our mouths are. Let’s show everyone exactly how obsolete knowledge is. This is it. This is what I propose we do:

Let’s have our minds wiped. Let’s do it. Let’s get rid of everything we know. Let’s unburden ourselves of all of the knowledge that we have amassed over our lives. Let’s do this so that we can move forward in a world where we can live freely and achieve great things without the heavy burden of dusty old knowledge littering up our noggins.

If, like me, you truly believe that knowledge is becoming obsolete, this is a sign of our commitment to that belief.

Who’s in? I’ll fire up the neuralyzers…

You Can Do Anything!

I’ve just read this article on TES, entitled ‘Why education needs more fuzzy thinking’. In the article, Ewan McIntosh proposes a “fuzzy world” of education where there are “activities that help students to learn for themselves, synthesise complex information, generate large numbers of ambitious ideas and build prototypes”. It is also an education where there is “almost no content”.

I’ll ignore the fear mongering attempted with his entirely irrelevant reference to terrorism, but McIntosh finishes by telling us: “We don’t need people who know about history; we need people who can think like historians to help us prevent future conflicts.”

How does he think historians think like historians? Does he really assume they can think the way they do without knowing about history?

These sorts of suggestions from experts make me cross. They make me cross because the expert seems to have spectacular amnesia about the content that they have consumed and the knowledge that they have built up over the many years that has led them to their expertise. As such, they seem to assume that they are just innately skilled and so further assume that such innate skill can just be brought out of children, and the passing on of knowledge is entirely absent in the process. This is not only wrong, it’s selfish. It says: I’ve had a good education which has put me in the position I am in, but I’m not going to offer you the same standards of education I had.

Anyway, I couldn’t help reading that article without thinking of this brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch:

McIntosh’s article is just missing these lines:

Now, thanks to technology… it doesn’t matter if you have skills or training or years of experience: you can do it! You can do anything!

The world needs more singer-songwriters and fewer doctors and engineers.

If you think you’re talented, then you are.

I await the revised version of the article.

I ❤ January 2015

When TV shows run out of ideas, they fall back on that old faithful: the clip show compiling all of the ‘best bits’.

And when they run out of their own TV shows, there are always clip shows made up of the best bits of other people’s shows: the I ❤ 1984 (etc.) model, featuring talking heads from D-list celebrities reminiscing about the time that dog said “sausages” on That’s Life.

As a D-list blogger myself (what do you mean I’m getting above my station?), this regurgitation of other people’s brilliance is the perfect model for me to reminisce on the best blog posts of each month (with the added implication that I’ve run out of ideas).

(In all seriousness, I got to the end of 2014 and realised I’d read so many great blogs but not really collected them anywhere. So this monthly blog is a way for me to compile an anthology of some of the best reading in one place and be able to access it when I want to call upon it again.)

So without further ado, this is my ‘clip show’ of the blogposts that I read and enjoyed the most in January…

  • The nonsense of the grade descriptors by @chrishildrew: Chris went down the rabbit hole of grade descriptors and has exposed us to the mad tea party. As Alice said, “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”
  • Why I Hate Highlighters! by @HuntingEnglish: I like this because Alex confirms what I think I might have always feared, but never quite confronted: highlighters often put a garish neon gloss over a lack of actual learning. Rumours are unconfirmed that this is the first in a series of ‘Why I Hate…’ blogs, which will feature other such objects of Alex’s anathema as children and Maths teachers. (For balance, and because I like him, this is highlighter advocate @jon_brunskill‘s rebuttal.)
  •  Some Problems With “Action Research” by @Bio_Joe: Thanks to this brilliant post by Joe, I’ve now added the word significant to my list of words-that-are-used-in-a-way-which-often-leaves-their-actual-meaning-behind-in-order-to-promote-a-pedagogy (see impact, evidence, research, etc.) The “study” Joe picks apart here comes from a website riddled with spurious arguments and “research” in the name of “evidence”. Which is a shame because it is an area I’d like to see some reasoned thought around.
  • Can we teach students to make inferences? by @atharby: Andy precisely and eloquently pinpoints the very reasons why teaching thinking skills is largely unhelpful, and why building student knowledge is a much more effective approach. I wish I’d had this to hand when I sat through a cognitive acceleration training course that promoted thinking skills in English recently.
  • How do we get them reading? by @katie_s_ashford: Katie generously shares the fruits of her scrutiny on the research and approaches to solving “the problem of reading”. These systematic and practical ideas are absolute gold – send this to your literacy coordinators/English department/SLT/everyone now.
  • Undermining teachers is easy by @LearningSpy: The blogdaddy David Didau reiterates the necessity for schools to master behaviour as requisite for learning, and decries the damaging line of thought (avowed in this instance by a school inspector, no less) that states that good behaviour is merely a product of good teaching.
  • A lesson is the wrong unit of time by @BodilUK: A second blog from Bodil, in which she questions why our discourse and measurement always revolves around ‘the lesson’ as a unit, when the reality of learning expands way beyond that unit’s boundaries. She’s absolutely right, as usual.
  • I Did Not Speak Out by @SurrealAnarchy: Martin’s writing always provokes deep thought, and this clever channelling of Pastor Niemöller is a stirring illustration of the constantly shifting focuses and measurements in schools (and the impact of these on pupils and teachers).

Bloom’s: the slipperiness of soft skills doesn’t make them higher order

One of the best things about taking cover lessons outside of your subject area is that you often come away having learned something new. In my particular experience,  Geography is the lesson I usually come away from loaded with bags of new knowledge, having bugged the kids with questions for the best part of the hour. To put it bluntly, before I started teaching, my knowledge of tribal communities mostly extended to the moment that a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango, stuck it with the others and then danced a dainty tango and… well, the rest is history.

But thanks to Geography cover lessons, my knowledge of tribal communities is much deeper. I now know that Um Bongo is actually produced in Somerset (they do genuinely drink it in the Congo though).

I also recently learned about another tribal community, named the Mundurukú, who live in the Amazon River basin. As far as I am aware, they did not invent any soft drinks, but they are interesting for another reason: they have a number system that only goes up to five. That is to say that they only have words in their language for numbers one to five (which is probably why Brazil did so badly at the last World Cup: if they’d have won, it would have been their sixth trophy – how would they have explained that to these people?) And whilst we may find having only five numbers in your language peculiar, the Mundurukú would probably look at the Pirahã people (a ‘neighbouring’ tribe located some 700 miles away) with a similar curiosity: the Pirahã only have words for numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’. Don’t worry, they’ve got all eventualities covered: for anything greater than two they use the word ‘aibaagi’, which means ‘many’.

So basically, everything with these tribes is quantifiable up to a point and then it just becomes vague, ambiguous and equivocal beyond that.

To us it seems unworkable to have a system where everything is clear and distinct to begin with, then becomes imprecise and woolly once it reaches a certain level. But that is basically how I see taxonomies of higher order thinking, such as Bloom’s.

Higher order thinking

It strikes me that, according to such taxonomies, the higher the order of your thinking, the less likely it is that we can actually define or measure it. Which is problematic if we are encouraged to live by them, as we are in many schools.

But maybe it is precisely that same problematic nature of these ‘higher order thinking skills’ that puts them at the top of the hierarchy in the collective consciousness? Because – and here’s the crux of my thoughts on this taxonomy – I don’t actually believe that those soft skills at the top are actually harder than those distinctive ones at the bottom: I think it is often harder to remember than it is to create. I’m of the belief that it can often be more difficult to understand than to evaluate; indeed, it is only once you understand a concept that you are in a position to evaluate using that concept. I’d even argue that, if you have full understanding of a concept or concepts, evaluation of it/them is a very simple process. Just watch how quickly and precisely experts like Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood evaluate the shortcomings of a technical bake – they do this because they have complete understanding. One could even suggest that their understanding came after mastering creating.

Yet, it is the slippery nature of these soft ‘higher order’ skills that means we see them as somehow more advanced than the others.

I recently went on a course aimed at improving higher order thinking skills. During this course, there was never any discussion of pupils actually knowing things. It was all aimed at them being able to do the stuff at the top of the taxonomy – creating, evaluating, analysing. What the course missed was that, by teaching pupils content, by building their knowledge base, by making sure they can remember things, by ensuring they understand concepts, the ‘higher order’ stuff becomes much, much easier for them. With stuff like Bloom’s, we are often deceived into missing this.

For me, it seems that the so-called ‘lower order’ skills (such as remembering, understanding) often involve a lot more cognitive processing than the ‘higher order’ skills (creating, evaluating, etc.) Indeed, those ‘higher order’ skills often involve the brain just making short cuts using the hard-earned knowledge – that which was acquired through ‘lower order’ thinking.

So, Bloom’s taxonomy? Higher order thinking? If we want pupils to do the things at the top of those ranks, I think we should ignore these hierarchies and, instead, concentrate on teaching content and building pupils’ knowledge. Honestly, I think it is that simple. As simple as do-re-mi, A-B-C, 1-2… um… many?

Note: the penultimate paragraph – italicised – was added on 30th September 2014, to clarify the argument made in the post.