The knowledge vs. skills debate is not new to education. The former refers to the sum of familiarities and understanding of concepts and ideas, whereas the latter focuses on exploiting the former to achieve a desired outcome or purpose. On January 10, 2021, a group of parliamentarians, university vice-chancellors, entrepreneurs, and education thought leaders petitioned the U.K. government, via the Sunday Times, urging a radical reform of their secondary education. Among the lead petitioners is MP and former skills minister, Robert Halfon, who strongly argues for the mission-critical need to re-engineer the current model, where GCSEs should be replaced by an academic and vocational baccalaureate at 18, similar to the French Baccalaureate, colloquially knows as ‘la bac.’ Their collective advocacy is for a broader and balanced education that provides a good mix of academic and vocational components so that pedagogy keeps up with the economic, social, and technological changes in society. This discourse, as intriguing as it might sound, isn’t novel and similar scholarly debates have been going on for years or even decades in other parts of the world.
The focus at hand is not to look at this subject through an ‘either /or’ lens, but ask ourselves what we want for our youngsters after they graduate high school or college. Is it about personal attitudes and attributes, such as good decision-making, problem-solving, social skills, or being upright citizens with tremendous character and deep values? Or is it more on the practical side of things related to gainful employment, creating wealth and increasing one’s stature on the global stage. One simply can’t deny the complementarity of the two. Some scholars argue about striking the right balance between knowledge and skills, which means as students gain knowledge, they should have parallel opportunities, through internships, practicums, to apply their understanding of the subject matter to master a craft, trade, or the basics of a future profession.
The landscape of education being as vast as an ocean, and the MOOCs, the Khan Academies, and Udemies of the world just a click away, what is more critical is developing a deeper awareness about one’s learning paths, which in educational parlance is often referred to as meta-learning. For instance, if I could index my journey towards becoming an ‘independent user’ of a foreign language, say German (far from it currently, though), by gradually learning the 2400 vocabulary terms, understand the heuristics, and become fairly proficient at formal reading and listening, I could revisit this index map to learn Dutch. One could apply the same technique to learn to play an instrument. Meta-learning algorithms are also at the heart of superior performance of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. If meta-learning has to have an impact on learners, approaches to teaching and learning should pivot from instructions obvious to students to reminders that lie dormant in their minds or alien to them. Adam Boxer, Head of Science at a private school in the U.K., encourages his students to question themselves if they have fully met the expectations of a task after its completion. A more passive approach will be just asking students to read the instructions carefully, although there is nothing wrong with the latter. Activating these creative pathways to think and reflect and transitioning from the generics to specific metrics of a discipline will be key to levelling the learning field, both from a knowledge and skills perspective. If schools have to review their pedagogical motto, turning the page from ‘education for all’ to ‘reflection for all,’ or even ‘meta-learning for all’ should bring the attention back to what truly matters in learning.
If nations and schools could fix infrastructure and logistics, increase access to quality educators and resources, how do we streamline the content and make learners’ time at school worthwhile? When external examination boards expect teachers to cover 10 units worth content in a school year spanning 200 days, would it be rather rewarding to focus on a limited, yet genuinely relevant set of lessons where learners could explore the content at greater depth and pursue projects and build materials to test how far their learned theories stretch? Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard University, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing through a professional network, says his students did quite well on textbook-problems, but were puzzled when they encountered simple word problems that demanded an understanding of concepts behind the formulas and equations. He now focuses more on active learning through peer interactions and encouraging students to work on meaningful projects and creating products at the end of each fixed term of teaching so that they could see first-hand the value in their learning and hours spent in the classroom. You can’t ask for a better return on investment or satisfaction.
At the end of the day or year, we need to ask ourselves if we are sending the transformed versions of our students into the working world who can not only flourish in it, but add value without succumbing to professional pressures. If airline pilots have to complete two proficiency checks every year, where they have to show complete fluency of flight manuals, emergency procedures as well as an operational expertise in a simulator replicating seasonal variations in weather, to retain their flying licenses, they can’t polish skills without refilling their knowledge tank. The same applies to educators, surgeons, and a plethora of other professions. My money is on doing a thorough auditing of our educational strategies, both from a content and practice perspective than debating a false dichotomy. Here are three practices that might pave the way to preserving a culture focused on academic learning and maintaining quality control.
a. Curricular Review: Robert Marzano in his seminal work on ‘guaranteed and viable curriculum’ outlines the need for protecting and providing teachers’ with adequate time to prepare, instruct and assess as well as designing a realistic instructional calendar where relevant content is taught to mastery levels. This will mean eliminating redundancies and having clear intervention strategies for learners not meeting the targeted indicators of mastery. This will also require foregoing undesirable clerical work and opting for only a ‘popular’ set of non-academic activities based on students’ interests and resource availability. Also, carrying out an annual pedagogical audit to evaluate the coherence between the goals targeted and outcomes achieved should equip educators with reflective tools to enhance their efficiency.
b. Teachers’ qualifications, experience, and attitudes: A 30-year longitudinal peer-reviewed study conducted by Se Woong Lee and Eun Jung Lee at the Universities of Missouri and Arizona, respectively concluded that students taught, particularly math and science, by multiple highly qualified teachers with in-depth subject matter expertise and experience are more likely to attain higher level education degrees. If teachers’ qualifications play such a significant role, the vetting processes of these folks should be equally rigorous and hiring them will require both a strategic and creative approach as well as a fairly generous commitment of resources. The decision-making process can be improved by asking deeper questions about how they will introduce an ambiguous concept or react to a specific curricular challenge from a gifted student, or even how they seek professional development to both broaden and deepen their knowledge and skills repertoire. An invested educator will not simply opt for the next easy ‘YouTube’ video or simulation, but customise resources to meet student needs with significant original input.
c. Curating ideas and techniques: Schools adapt a range of strategies and interventions to meet the needs of all learners in a given year, where some are effective, others aren’t. Creating a database of workable ideas and a broad spectrum of tools related to task development and overcoming barriers to both academic and behavioural improvements of learners could be curated on a learning management system. As educators, both old and new, undergo orientation before the start of the new school year, they should be reminded and exposed to these systems to streamline their professional outlook as well as fruitfully coordinate among themselves. Obviously, not all variables can be factored in when it comes to a field as complex as student learning. When schools can’t monitor or track disruptors they can’t foresee, they need to reach out to sister schools or like-minded groups to borrow and implement adaptive systems that can systemically enhance learning.
Thanks to First Officer and soon-to-be Captain (my former student), Harit Phromphol for sharing his professional insights about aircraft piloting with me.
Lee, Se Woong, and Eunjung Alice Lee. “Teacher Qualification Matters: The Association between Cumulative Teacher Qualification and Students’ Educational Attainment.” International Journal of Educational Development, Pergamon, 25 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320303771.
Marzano, Robert J. What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2003.
Sian Griffiths, Education Editor. “The Future of Education: School’s Outmoded and It’s Time to Rewrite the Rules.” News Review | The Sunday Times, The Sunday Times, 9 Jan. 2021, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-future-of-education-schools-outmoded-and-its-time-to-rewrite-the-rules-n5g0zgdqd.
Walberg, Herbert J.|Paik. “Effective Educational Practices. Educational Practices Series–3.” ERIC, International Academy of Education, Palais Des Academies, 1, Rue Ducale, 1000 Brussels, Belgium., 30 Nov. 1999, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED443788.