By writing this blog I will continue to provide an overview of Christodoulou’s work in her controversial book ‘Seven Myths about Education’ (2013). Her subject matter is interesting, topical and of relevance to Oakham School. However, these posts are not intended as an endorsement of her extreme position but as a starting point for potentially rich and fruitful debate.
Myth number 3: The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
Mobile phones, laptops, tablets, data projectors, internet, social media, Alexa… all are 21st century inventions that have become woven into the day to day life of the young people we teach. So how do they influence the ways in which our pupils live and learn? Are teenagers today fundamentally different learners from their parents and do they have different needs as a result? Christodoulou’s third chapter in Seven Myths about Education (2013) examines the ‘myth’ that technology has radically changed pupils and what they need in school and also the way in which education should be conducted. Is it true that the landscape has altered so dramatically since the turn of the millennium that traditional teaching is no longer fit for purpose?
Christodoulou challenges the notion of ‘21st century skills’ (p. 47) which is often considered in direct opposition to 19th century ‘knowledge’. She acknowledges that there is less need than in the past to memorise vast quantities of information when we can all access it instantaneously. She also accepts that the future workplace for which we are preparing our pupils may mean traditional careers and industries become obsolete, thus negating the need to know specific ‘stuff’ (p. 49). However, she contends that the dichotomy many perceive between knowledge (past) and skills (future) is both superficial and unhelpful.
Christodoulou argues that ‘it is quite patronising to suggest that no one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read.’ (p. 52.). Although it is unclear exactly WHO is making these suggestions it does address the teaching of skills in schools which has (quite rightly) become more prominent in recent times. She suggests that skills-based education displaces knowledge from the curriculum when the two should be inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, despite the rapid progress in technology bringing about changes in society, the fundamental principles on which such knowledge is based remains largely unchanged, and should be learnt. For example without an understanding of basic scientific facts, formulae and processes, scientific development is impossible.
What seems key here is the concept of learning which is only addressed implicitly. You can hold knowledge without understanding it and you can also be highly skilled at something without actually understanding it. Learning is necessarily a mixture of facts and skills and a combination of memorising and application.
This point leads us onto myth number four…
Myth number 4: You can always just look it up
As discussed above Christodoulou challenges the belief that we should change the way we teach to mirror the changes and developments in society. This is an age where any fact can be unearthed and checked at almost any time by any literate individual. But does the invention of Google necessarily mean that we needn’t concern ourselves with the teaching of facts? Should we simply teach pupils the necessary research skills to find facts themselves? Christodoulou thinks not, or at least, not entirely. Whilst she does not dispute the internet has opened up access to knowledge, and has also democratised its availability she maintains the importance of committing facts to long-term memory. Her principal argument is that the amount of information we can store in our working memory is limited and long-term memory serves an important purpose in forming a context for the acquisition of more knowledge and understanding:
‘The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we are able to solve’. (p. 63)
More provocatively she rightly states that ‘we cannot outsource memory to Google’. (p. 64)
So why shouldn’t we rely on pupils being able to ‘just look it up’? Christodoulou suggests that in order to understand and make sense of any information gained a certain amount of basic knowledge is required. To elucidate her point she gives the example of a dictionary definition: to understand it one must first know the words used to define it. To add to this example, in Physics a learning of formulae is needed to be able to tackle most problems and acquire a deeper understanding in science. In MFL using an online translator gives a quick fix answer which the user is unlikely to remember long term or be able to use in again in a different, future context.
All of this seems to justify the use of fact-based quizzes, vocab tests and date memorisation in our daily practice. Whilst remodelling of the Oakham lower school curriculum in which inquiry learning features alongside the acquisition and building of skills, the MFL department have continued to schedule regular vocab tests to help pupils commit key vocab to long-term memory. This equips pupils with the basic knowledge they need to construct sentences quickly and efficiently without relying on a phone to look words up. Furthermore ‘looking it up’ is rife with potential pitfalls. The classic examples of the misuse of dictionary tools in MFL relate to pupils’ lack of background knowledge. Without an understanding of nouns, gender, verbs and a range of examples in French students often make little sense of word in translation.
To illustrate this I picked some examples out of recent preps middle school students have handed in:
Je suis allé à une allumette de foot (allumette = match, but matchstick)
Je n’aime pas nager parce que j’ai peur de l’évier (I don’t like swimming because I a,m scared of the sink: couler – to sink un évier – a sink)
J’aime jouer au grillon (I like playing cricket, un grillon = a cricket the insect)
Added to this are the more general dangers of searching the internet without any prior knowledge of the topic being researched: the acceptance of information indiscriminately, focusing on the headlines rather than the detail, being overwhelmed by too much data. We all know too that the lazy student will often resort to copying and pasting chunks of information that have not been read properly or (mis)understood, or indeed regurgitating information gleaned without processing it. Although it may be possible (and necessary) to teach pupils to consider information critically, a certain amount of factual knowledge is undoubtedly required to be able to exercise this skill.
As Christodoulou says, when ‘looking it up on Google ‘…(the pupils) do not have enough knowledge to be able to engage with meaning and work out what is and not relevant and correct’. (p. 65)
Christodoulou’s position vis à vis facts and knowledge is clear and uncompromising but what do her arguments mean in a context such as Oakham School? Her position is extreme and she does fail to acknowledge some key factors in her book.
As we are poised to embrace the MYP and inquiry learning through the FOSIL model her views strike a raw nerve. However, what she says does make sense. What we must do is strike a balance between the imparting of fact-based knowledge or ‘frontloading’ teaching, helping students develop the 21st century skills required to research and giving them the benefits of inquiry-based learning. Tackling misconceptions or assumptions surrounding FOSIL is an important first step. Inquiry learning is not discovery learning, pupils need the support, basic knowledge and structure that only a teacher can supply before during and after any kind of inquiry project. It is also our responsibility to teach young people the skills they need to become independent learners and over time help them hone these so when they DO decide to ‘look it up’ they find useful, accurate information that they can understand, contextualise and use.
To conclude this second post I agree with Christodoulou’s words: ‘Being a good researcher goes far beyond just being sceptical about what turns up on the first page of a Google search, and depends to a far greater extent on the knowledge you have about the topic being researched.’ (p. 67)