Monday, 15 April 2013

Facts or Skills - Which is the Priority of Education?

I will always be grateful to Mr Denton. He taught me Maths in Year 6, and came with a reputation of being strict, demanding hard work, and having a fiery temper. I never saw any evidence, as far as I remember of the last of these, but we worked hard in his lessons. In particular, I remember his insistence that we take mental maths seriously, and so every lesson started with a quick fire test demanding that we work out increasingly complex numbers without even using our fingers: he would deliver half a dozen questions, pause, and then ask for all the answers after 30 seconds or so. How well I remember getting 9 cubed, calculated in my head, wrong. It still pains me.

The reason, we were told, that this was so important is that it allowed us to see when we had made a mistake in a question. Some simple mental maths, and some estimation, allowed me to see so many mistakes during the arithmetical part of exams for the rest of my time at school, and at university. This is obvious: part of the function of knowledge is that it forms the framework by which we analyse new information. When we receive a new piece of data, we evaluate its accuracy, its value and its use from other pieces of similar data.

Daniel Kahneman shows in Thinking, Fast and Slow, this results in poor decisions when we don’t realise that we are doing it. But it doesn’t result in decisions as poor as would be the case if we had no ‘anchoring’ information at all  - information which we can use to place the new piece of truth in the magnificently complex matrix we all build up during our lifetimes. It is this process of putting information into a framework of knowledge which we call 'learning'.

Teaching unions and Mr Gove are currently engaged in a fight over whether school curricula should include facts or skills. Of course the answer has to be both. Mr Gove is wrong to suggest that all teaching is based on learned information, that is what Google, and Wikipedia are for – and they are assuredly here to stay. The availability of information is increasing, and the cost of its digital storage is reducing, logarithmically, and Mr Gove appears to ignore this.

However, the teaching unions are also wrong, and where they are wrong is exactly where Mr Denton was right: we would be foolish to rely only on an external store of information. If we were to do so, how would we know whether Wikipedia were right? How would we ascribe value to any ‘fact’? How would we spot when we were being sold information which was actually fact-horsemeat purporting to be minced steak.

Preparation for life (rather than simply working out what can be taught and tested in schools) involves both the acquisition of skills of information (ie fact) collection, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and communication, and the means by which to relate this to what we already know. Facts – even Mr Gove’s facts – are mere noise without context, and of course, the context does need to be understood, and be memorised.

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