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What Should We Teach?

Science teacher talking to pupils

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Many people will recognise this famous scene from ’Hard Times’, one of my favourite Dickens tales, featuring Thomas Gradgrind, a caricature of some strands of Victorian thought.

GCSE and A-Level examinations resumed last summer after the disruption of Covid. The seemingly unending disputes over what to teach in schools were similarly paused during Covid but have now recommenced. Educationalists, politicians and people with no background or interest in education at all quickly divide themselves into 2 camps. The ‘skills’ group believe firmly that time spent learning facts is largely wasted as Google and mobile devices now provide immediate access to more facts than could be mastered in a lifetime of rote learning. Much play is made of quotes from Einstein, ‘Never memorize something that you can look up.’, before bold statements are made about the information age and the importance of being able to learn new things and having the skills to research, enquire, analyse, synthesise, solve and communicate and generally tackle future problems that may not even have been thought of yet.

The positive fruits of this approach, over the last 30 years, can be seen, for example, in Geography, which has grown to absorb some Economics, Sociology and Politics, allowing students to engage with real problems such as urban re-branding, global conflicts over scarce resources and living with natural hazards. Traditionalists will be reassured that oxbow lakes, longshore drift and glacial moraine are still covered although the practice of listing the exports, capitals and physical characteristics of the world’s nations, one at a time, has, happily, fallen into obsolescence.

The second ‘content’ group retort that knowing things is still worthwhile for the following reasons. Firstly, there is the notion of ‘cultural literacy’; that students need a certain body of ‘core knowledge’ in order to function as part of a society, to grasp references to the past and to current stories, idioms and entertainments and to be able to debate the issues of the day. This influential idea resonates with thoughts about the national identity and originates in the thinking of the American philosopher Ed Hirsch. Defining exactly what would form part of the core knowledge is quite tricky although there are plenty of attempts. Do I need to know about the Magna Carta in order to understand the principles of British democracy and use my vote wisely? How about the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the suffragette movement? History and English are both susceptible to politicians, teachers and headmasters producing ever lengthening lists of historical figures and events that should be known and books that should be read in a renewed literary canon. It might be that our society is so fragmented that a different cultural literacy is needed for interaction with different groups in society; most of us effortlessly adapt our choice of language and cultural references depending upon who we talk to. Our culture itself is dynamic, changing in response to ideas from outside our nation and fresh internal developments so that any ‘core knowledge’ would need constant review. Would Brexit, VAR, influencer, or deepfake be included if such a list was drawn up now, despite all of these being largely unknown phrases and concepts 20 years ago?

Secondly, there are core facts needed for success and progression within a particular subject. Newton’s Laws of motion form an important part of GCSE Physics and must be understood before the skill of using them can be mastered. More advanced work in relativity or quantum theory goes beyond Newton’s Laws but makes use of the same concepts and is best taught through probing the limitations of Newton’s Laws rather than beginning afresh.

Thirdly, without some knowledge we lack the capacity to understand, to know what to look up and even to know what questions would be useful to ask. For example, a synopsis of a new period and geographical location in History allows students to become aware of the key facts, dates, documents, buildings, places, technologies, ideas and protagonists before getting into the detail of the arguments and honing their skills. This is helpful even if by the end of the topic the over-simplistic aspects of the original synopsis are obvious.

To bolster their arguments, the ‘skills’ camp characterise the members of the ‘content’ group as Gradgrinds (the ultimate insult that can be applied within this particular debate) intent upon compelling generations of children to memorise endless facts of uncertain worth. They misapply Gradgrind as he would have been greatly interested in solving problems, if it led to profit or utility. The point of Gradgrind is his despising of emotion, feeling and aesthetics, a lack that he rues towards the end of Hard Times as his daughter Louisa suffers an emotional breakdown. Someone fond of content rather than skills might comment that the skills advocate had not read to the end of the book, preferring to read and no doubt analyse just the scene quoted at the start.

Most teachers view this debate as something of a false choice. Remembering Pythagoras’ theorem is of no value without an understanding of how to use it to solve problems. Solving problems is a much more demanding achievement than mere recitation of a formula. Nevertheless, the skills have to be developed through the study of some selected content. This content might as well be the edited highlights of human knowledge distilled through years of expert argument and generally agreed to be of importance, interest and use. Knowing things is also an easy way to impress your friends and essential for completing quizzes when your phone has run out of charge.