At the base of all proficiency, there are essentially three fundamental components: Knowledge, Skill and Application. In short, Knowledge refers to the facts, data systems and so on that we must learn and remember; Skill refers to the way that we manipulate and manifest this knowledge through action and performance; and Application refers to how we use our skill and knowledge to interact with the world around us and other members of society.
Historically, the vast majority of education systems have been focussed on knowledge-based education. The more mainstream the institution, the truer this has typically been. I suggest, and I am certainly not the first, that this is not a good thing and that it is long time for a change.
Why is Knowledge-based education so widespread?
I certainly understand the appeal of knowledge-based education. From the teacher’s perspective, it’s easy to deliver. We tend to call the relevant teaching approach “transfer of knowledge”, whereby the teacher attempts to transfer everything she knows to her students. Historically, this process has been very teacher-centred, applying the lecture model, with the teacher standing at a whiteboard and explaining concepts while students listen and remember.
In recent years, student-centred learning has become increasingly popular, and more teachers have shifted towards a more discovery-based approach, with students finding things out for themselves. Still, in many cases, though learning has become more student-centred, it has remained knowledge-based, with students taking responsibility for absorbing information themselves rather than listening to teacher presentations.
From the perspective of the education system at large, knowledge-based education is also very attractive. As well as being easy to deliver, it is easy to test. Formal, standardised exams have been the bread and butter for many of the world’s education systems for more than a hundred years. Teachers transfer their knowledge to the students, and then a test is taken to show how much of this knowledge has been learned (read: remembered). From these results come easily calculated scores as feedback, league tables and student ranking, minimum requirements for graduation and entry to further and higher education. Formal, standardised tests of knowledge allow us to assign scores and grades to our students, and these numbers and letters are easy to understand, to compare, and to categorise.
A self-sustaining fallacy
Unfortunately, this knowledge-based approach to education provides little actual benefit to the supposed primary beneficiary: the student.
This point of view is still rejected by many. I see two main reasons. First, it’s such entrenched wisdom that change is always going to be hard. The that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it contingent of the population will remain stuck in their ways until a new generation of educators come along to replace them. Beyond this, though, there is something even more difficult to undermine.
Over the decades, and even centuries, and entire system has grown around this convention. Now, it can be observed that getting good grades at school in fact provides a valuable start for graduating students. Better grades give more chance to get into good universities, look good on a CV and in general carry a certain amount of social cachet. However, all of this is superficial, based on the fact that the grades are important because we say so. This has over time come to be self-fulfilling. Nevertheless, it is not providing the benefit that I believe an education system should be responsible for.
Rather than endowing students with self important numbers, education should aim to provide its students with learning and development. An education should prepare students for the world they will face when they graduate. It should give them the means to complete the multitude of tasks and overcome the challenges that life outside of the schoolhouse presents. In general, the lists of facts, data, statistics and other memorised knowledge that students leave school with under the current system are rarely of any great use.
What students really need are skills and the ability to apply those skills.
Skills application should be the focus of all education. Everything that is taught in schools should relate to the kinds of thing we expect students to need to do after they graduate. If you’re a teacher planning a lesson, ask yourself what value the lesson is truly going to bring to your students. What will they be able to do after your lesson that they couldn’t do before? Notice that this questions asks not just what will they know, but what will they be able to do.
As a langauge teacher, the knowledge that my students need to learn includes lexis and structure (largely, vocabulary and grammar). Many teachers even now continue to teach these through rote memorisation of word lists and sentence patterns, drilling and copying from the whiteboard lesson after lesson, ignoring the skills and application that language requires if its actually to be of any value. A list of words is worth nothing if I don’t know how to use them and to communicate with them.
The skills that I am concerned with as a language teacher are Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. We refer to these as the Macro Skills of language, with Micro Skills being more specific subcategories such as Public Speaking, Academic Reading, Persuasive Writing, etc. The words and structures that comprise the Knowledge elements of language must be read, heard, written and/or spoken to have any impact on the world around us or to be of any actual use. A memorised list of words in my head is utterly useless.
Application refers to the times, places, situations, scenarios that we might use our skills and knowledge. Different scenarios call for different langauge; we speak differently with different people; we write differently depending on our intention. Certain words and phrases are not appropriate in certain contexts and might even be considered rude or offensive, even though thy’re fine in other cases. These are the things our students need to learn to navigate if they are to truly master a language.
Knowledge-based education has reigned over much of the world, effectively for as long as we have had schools. New systems have come and gone, schools have seen countless superficial reforms—usually more administrative than anything else—but the focus on knowledge has remained. If we really care about doing the best for our students, then it is time for a change.