If your flatmate asked for help in locating a green sweater that she had somehow misplaced, you’d be able to help her look for it in a genuinely useful way. You know what a sweater is, you know what green is, and you know where it’s likely to be, or at least, you know where it’s highly unlikely to be – it won’t fit into the butter dish, for example.
But what if she asked you to help find her almposh?* It’s a bit harder to help, as you don’t know what it is. Is it edible? Soft? Hard? Large? Small? Will it fit into an envelope? Could it have slipped down the drain? What colour is it? What does it do? How will you know you’ve found it, if you don’t know what it is?
You have good finding skills, but you lack the knowledge of what you’re meant to be finding. The only way to be sure, is to present every item to your flatmate, in the hope that it’s what she’s looking for. It’s going to be a long, frustrating search.
The debate around ‘Knowledge vs Skills’ has intensified since the publication of Daisy Christodoulou‘s book, Seven Myths About Education. It seems to have reached new depths with the declaration by a number of bloggers that although they favour skills, they are not anti-knowledge.
In schools, this manifests itself as a decision to either instruct pupils in facts, or to give them small clues in order that they research things, and find them out for themselves. In extreme cases, the small clues are absent, and the pupils must discover for themselves, given only a topic or title.
A number of bloggers have firmly stated that they are on the side of knowledge, that it is fundamental to a pupil’s ability make sensible use of the skills they have. Harry Webb has written an excellent post on the importance of knowledge as a foundation to all that a pupil finds out for himself. This, and the earlier post he mentions, make a very clear case for the need for knowledge in teaching. The skill of research alone will not be sufficient, if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Visiting Blenheim Palace with some friends, I was struck by the relevance of this argument in the context of everyday life. During our post-lunch catch-up, one friend related a conversation she had with her teenage son about her impending visit. She had mentioned that she was meeting us in Woodstock, before going on to the palace. Her son looked confused and slightly alarmed, before saying “But aren’t you a bit old for a music festival?”
We laughed, but it made me think – how easy is it to make a mistake if you only have a few facts? Whilst it was amusing that a 13 year old thought his mother was too old for a music festival (presumably he’s no idea how old the Rolling Stones are then), it also showed that Googling can have its limitations. My friends son, interested to find out where she was going, had got as far as reading that Woodstock was a famous music festival. However, he hadn’t managed to discover that this was held in the sixties. I have no idea whether he actually used Google, but when my friend asked him how he’d heard of it, he did say that he had looked it up on the internet.
And what else could he have looked up, and got wrong? Blenheim Palace was the birthplace of Churchill. Put ‘Churchill’ into Google, and the first results you get are for a car insurance firm. If you’re not very knowledgeable, how far do you go before you realise you’ve made a mistake?
Sugata Mitra wrote a piece for the Observer (available on the Guardian website) in which he argues that teaching facts is outdated, due to the ready availability of sources of information, such as Google. He states that children’s ability to function in the workplace would be better assessed by an exam system which allowed collaborative working. That “The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill.”
But how do you do this if you lack the knowledge to discriminate between two different answers? And what happens when you’re under pressure to produce work that forms part of an exam?
The OCR level 2 Nationals in ICT (2010) included a task that all students had to complete, in order to show competence in using a search engine. The criteria state that students should:
The activity is centred around the premise that the candidate is planning a trip to Paris for a group of pupils and teachers. They must include all of the above criteria, and show where they have accessed the information, citing their sources.
One pupil had produced a fantastic piece of work, detailing all the available transport options, their associated timings and costs. She had also included a few pros and cons, in order that the reader could make an informed decision. Aiming for the higher level, she had also commented on the trustworthiness of each source, although this was often limited to “I used Google and found it on Wikipedia. This is a reliable source of information.” The transport options had been taken from the relevant travel company (such as the Eurostar website), and credited as such.
All of her work seemed relatively well-researched, even if a little limited. Until, that is, the section on sightseeing and evening activities in Paris. Here, the candidate had written:
You can go to The Eiffel Tower, that is like Blackpool Tower and built in 1887 and 1889. It has a restaurant at the top that is in Las Vegas. You can also go to the Louvre Museum. It is one of the biggest museum in the world. At night you can look at the Seine, it is a river with lights on. You can also see the Moulin Rouge, it is a 2001 musical with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. He was in Star Wars.
Faced with a range of options, the pupil had clearly decided to pick the ones she thought were right. Unfortunately, her lack of knowledge had let her down. There is indeed a restaurant called the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas. So far Google, so true. But her lack of geographical knowledge meant that she did not realise that Las Vegas is not in Paris. Moulin Rouge is the title of a 2001 film, and it may be possible to watch it in Paris today, but ignorance of the likelihood of watching a specific film being cited as something to do in the city meant that a further mistake was made.
Pope (Alexander, not the Pontiff) wrote:
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
With access to knowledge at our fingertips in the form of Google, it has never been more true. But despite this, even those first two lines are often misquoted.
In some respects, Sugata Mitra is correct, we can learn and teach ourselves simply by looking things up. But to do so puts us at risk of gaining misinformation, and in not knowing any background, we are unlikely to realise this, and are unable to correct it.
Pope said “And drinking largely sobers us again.” Without learning more, we cannot evaluate the reliability of what we have found out so far, but without a level of knowledge in the first place, we cannot begin to look for the things we need to find out. We’ll forever be stuck with whatever Google throws at us.
And who’s to say that popcorn doesn’t feature on the menu at the Moulin Rouge?
*I made this word up. Any suggestions for its meaning?