Tag Archives: soft skills

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….”

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.

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.