Knowledge vs. habits of mind (oh, and how many spokes does the London Eye have?)
I finished Guy Claxton’s new book – What’s the point of school? a couple of days ago, just in time to chair a panel debate yesterday at the RSAat which he was the main speaker (the audio will be on the RSA site in the next few day).
This past few weeks’ convulsions in the banking system have illustrated that the modern world is full challenge and uncertainty, as well as opportunity. Against this backdrop, Guy argues convincingly that if the primary job of education is to prepare young people to thrive in that world, then practitioners, parents, and the public at large need to think again about school and how it is practiced. It is perverse to watch the effects ripple out from a breaking economic system so complex that none know how to fix it, and then to keep our thinking about school stuck in the old ‘dead metaphors’ of the monastery or the factory.
To make the change we need, Guy says we need to focus less on the reverence and passivity to authoritative knowledge implied in these old ways of thinking, and more on learning and the processes which awaken a desire and capability to learn in everyone.
At the panel, there was a dangerous outbreak of consensus in the room.
That was until one important point of doubt was raised by Dylan William, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education. He picked up a point similar to the one I raised in my previous post about knowledge and subject disciplines. Dylan asked the audience to close their eyes and picture the London Eye. He then asked for suggestions about how many spokes it had. The answers ranged from four to two hundred.
Dylan then cheerfully announced that he hadn’t a clue either, but what was interesting is that trained mathematicians always gave an answer that was a multiple of four. They are, he says, incapable of suggesting it might be thirty-seven, or an equally random or odd number. Meanwhile, historians would probably be off looking for a source of bias to the question.
His point being that a discipline like maths can profoundly shape the way we see the world. More than collections of information, these bodies of knowledge, theoretical frameworks, skills mould our minds, our intuition and the ways tend to think.
More than ever we will need these disciplines to lead us intuitively to the important, reliable knowledge we need in an ever more complex world. In a media age where so many can amplify their voice, they can tell us what kinds of answers to our questions we should be picking out in the cacophony.
Again I was left asking questions we don’t seem to have good answers for just yet. In a future which rightly emphasises generic competences and habits of mind, what is the role of such subject disciplines? How do we make sure we lead the next generation to the point that the young student in class today is an amazing all-round, lifelong learner, but can also specialise and be a physicist if that is what she wants?
I look forward to carrying on this conversation here, and at future RSA events.