Education is about knowledge and skills

November 9, 2009

Lately I’ve been given to muse on the Western education system, and it’s occurred to me that it has quite a major deficiency: you can finish a high school course - mathematics for example - without having the skills that the course should be teaching you. In other words, the course is failing its students, letting them down by calling them proficient when they aren’t.

For example, a person I know was able to pass the year 12 mathematics course by rote learning, instead of acquiring the skills, learning the processes and operations that should have been needed to pass the course. It turned out that the student was then pushed into a science-focussed university course when such a course was totally unsuitable. Fortunately the mistake was noticed and rectified quickly. But it made me think that it would have been much better had that student failed the course, but been directed much more quickly to the right university course as a result.

The problem as I see it is the way in which students are assessed, that is, their ability to repeat what they have been told by their teachers. “This is how you do x, and this is what you need to know about y. Now go and make me proud!” Which they faithfully memorise by whatever means necessary, write down onto their exam papers, and thus pass the course.

What exams assess is the ability to memorise content. Not writing ability, nor intelligence, but memory, and memory alone. Because memorisation is the best strategy for passing exams. Memorise facts, dates, formulae, quotations, and the list of questions you’re most likely to be asked, and you will do very well in your exams.

It shouldn’t be this way. The learning system is all screwed up because assessment is so heavily geared toward this one skill. Because of the bias towards content, students’ grasp of the skills that they should be learning, the acquisition of skills that actually matter, is hit-and-miss. And that’s unfortunate, because it undermines the relationship between a qualification and the ability to perform a job.

Take English for example. The English course (as taught in Victoria, Australia) is comprised of 2 main elements: media analysis and analysis of literary texts (i.e., books). The purpose of the media analysis part of the course is to teach students to recognise (and perhaps reduce the impact of) the tricks that writers, filmmakers and advertisers can use to persuade or evoke particular feelings in their audience. I’m part optimist, part cynic, so I understood the importance of this skill as soon as it was explained to me. In fact, that was the most important part in my estimation: explaining the skills that the course was meant to teach, and why they were important. Unfortunately, that part was lacking from the other segment of the course, where we pored over novels, searching for meaning, social commentary and the wisdom given to us by the poets of centuries past. I had no idea what the skills were, let alone what they were for, and that contributed significantly to my inability to acquire them.

This Victorian year 12 English course failed me. Why? Because I was able to pass it by regurgitating what I’d been told by my teacher, without properly understanding it, and without having picked up the skills required to use the knowledge effectively. The knowledge was taught to me; the skills were not. Unapplied knowledge is useless. Therefore the course that taught me the knowledge without the skills to apply it is useless.

Now admittedly I’ve put that in rather extreme terms. There are certainly exceptions to what I’ve written, and I remain hopeful that courses exist that reliably teach and assess they skills that they are meant to. I only wish they were more prevalent. In the main, though, Western education teaches useless knowledge and hopes that the skills are absorbed through some combination of osmosis and magic. A better education system would assess the acquisition of the skills, rather than the absorption of facts, and then teaching students merely to pass the examination would not be such a problem.

One of the skills we hope to teach by teaching mathematics, for example, is process-wise, logical thinking. Note that I’m talking about mathematics as distinct from arithmetic - the kind of maths that starts with x + 6 = 9 and goes on from there. Would it not be better to realise what our actual aim is for this course, and assess on that instead? Assess the ability to think in regular processes and logical terms, and not the ability to memorise formulae and take tests. How? You’d have to consult a better mind than mine. But that is what is needed. Assessment of the skills, not the knowledge. Once you know how to do research and read for information (more skills), you can learn any knowledge you want to. The skills are the harder thing to learn, and that is what we should be focussing our children’s keen, spongy young minds on, before they lose the ease of learning that is the hallmark of their age. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s a hell of a job.

Education is about knowledge and skills - November 9, 2009 - Lucas Wilson-Richter