Skills and Knowledge

Teaching generally involves a balance of developing skills on the one hand while increasing knowledge on the other. I used to be of the opinion that the advent of the internet meant that skills should be prioritised over knowledge. Why would you need to know dates from history when you could simply look them up on Google? Far better that students learn the skills necessary to find information and fact-check it. If knowledge is fish, skills are being able to fish.

A few years after teacher training, I had become less of a cyber-utopian. For one thing, skills are learnt through the application, analysis etc. of knowledge. They don’t exist in a vacuum. A simple example: a student asked me the other day, “What was the Great Depression? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really know what it is.” I turned to the computer, brought up the Wikipedia entry, showed him some pictures. There was a graph:

US unemployment 1910-1960

We talked about it a bit, then I asked “So what else happened in 1939, might’ve been connected with the sharp drop in unemployment?”. There was a pause, and I gave some clues. “Oh yeah,” he said. We both would have preferred it if I hadn’t had to give some clues. The skill here – graph analysis – could not get started until some basic facts about World War II were present.

For another, the current mission of many educators – to change the role of a teacher from knowledgeable authority (sage) to learning facilitator (guide) – is problematic. Its noble purpose is to teach independence: don’t rely on me for the truth, child! Go forth, ye, and find out for yourselves! But assuming a teacher knows the answer to a question, why not just tell them? And if we start to see teachers as people who don’t tell us the answers, don’t we rob the world of another trustworthy source?

Anyway. At the moment I spend a large chunk of my week teaching Study Skills to international students getting ready for university. We teach them to write essays and reports, give presentations, research topics etc. The skills / knowledge conflict is interesting for me, because these lessons are explicitly about improving skills. “Know that” is less important than “Know how to”. The goals are all framed as “be able to”. This raises a question though: if you are teaching someone how to write an essay using acceptable English, what should they write about?

For one group, the assessment involves writing an essay about the effectiveness of independent study versus classroom study. This is a novel, self-reflexive approach: write an essay about study skills. The other group have to write about water provision in arid areas. This is a surprisingly interesting topic once you get into it, spinning off into related topics such as politics, business, science, engineering, history, economics; even topical subjects like the situation in Israel. The students are going on to a multitude of subjects at uni, so it needs to be a fairly broad topic.

The first topic – education – is a great one for me. I’ve spent the last six years teaching and done a bit of postgrad level reading and writing on the topic. I feel qualified to teach about it. The students engage with it, because they are by definition involved in education. But the second topic is totally beyond me – the students often know more than me, especially where science comes into it.

Personally, I learned how to write essays and improve my critical thinking skills by studying philosophy. The essays my students have to write involve arguments, counter-arguments and refutations, so philosophy seems like a perfect subject. While the assessment is a long way off, I set essays on questions where general knowledge is enough to take part. Ethics is a good one. Another way is to give a selection of essay questions (e.g. from http://idebate.org/debatabase ) and let the students choose a topic that interests them.

Right now, term’s coming towards the end and I’m thinking about what I want to do differently next term. One thing is set essay questions which are interesting, novel, and don’t require any specialist knowledge to write. Any suggestions, please post below.

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