We are informed that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is one of the biggest changes in education for many years. The transformation in education is required because in the 21st century global economy, Scotland must operate at the cutting edge of knowledge. However, knowledge is accumulating at an ever increasing rate which means content has to be constantly updated. Now the task is to equip people to be lifelong learners. Moreover, new knowledge brings new ethical issues to resolve. For example, in the life sciences genetic engineering can bring benefits for humanity but may also transform society in ways we do not wish. Therefore, we also need to educate citizens so society chooses wisely. So the arguments go.
A strong distinction can be made between traditional education and progressive education although the practice in particular schools may involve any kind of mix between the two types of curriculum.
This is renowned for being authoritarian and hierarchical, with teachers at the head of the class giving instructions and lessons. The curriculum is divided into subject areas and there is an emphasis on memorising content. Learning the alphabet and multiplication tables by rote produces a strong foundation on which to build later learning. Knowledge is transferred to the student who is considered a passive recipient. Textbooks are used as well as pen and paper, worksheets etc. Rationality and factual evidence predominate. The accumulated wisdom of the past is transferred; relativism is frowned upon; truth is valued and there is a recognition of right and wrong. There is a product, that is, knowledge and understanding, which is assessed by objective tests. The capacity for critical thinking and meaningful innovation come at the end of a rigorous knowledge-based education. Competition is inevitable.
This is portrayed as being egalitarian, child-centred and relevant. There is an emphasis on transferable skills rather than knowledge. Experience and understanding are more important than facts, and so are feelings and creativity. It is the learning process that matters and so pupils must learn how to learn with the aim of being lifelong learners accepting responsibility for their own learning. This is one of the important outcomes of what is often called outcome based education. Co-operation takes precedence over competition. Learners are allowed to be active (find things out for themselves) and have fun. Pupils are grouped together so that collaboration and team work are encouraged. Decisions are made by consensus. Project work is done with multidisciplinary topics to achieve critical thinking; rote learning is frowned upon and multiple intelligences are recognised. Students use multi-sources rather than textbooks and the teacher is merely a facilitator.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Scotland is clearly moving in the progressive direction. It may be considered by some that that is no bad thing; for too long we have lagged behind our more progressive neighbours. After all, progressive education is a global enterprise. But is abandoning knowledge based education to replace it with the idea of learning transferable skills really the way to go for the 21st century? There are some critics although few in the educational establishment.
Cognitive science points to the limits of working memory and the importance of stored information in long-term memory for critical thinking and creativity. Setting multidisciplinary tasks before pupils have acquired the relevant knowledge in each discipline overloads working memory. Problem solving cannot occur in a vacuum and it is too much to expect each pupil to discover everything for themselves. Googling for information cannot replace a solid grounding in the various disciplines.
The following blogger gives an example of the limits of working memory and how distraction in the classroom, whether through active learning (discovery) or group discussion, reduces the efficiency of learning.
In her blog Daisy Christodoulou writes:
In modern education, traditional knowledge often gets a bit of a hard time. Critics of knowledge-based curriculums argue that modern technology has eliminated the need for pupils to remember and memorise vast quantities of knowledge. Not only that, but the rate of modern development means that a lot of knowledge will quickly become obsolete. We need to ‘future-proof’ education by teaching transferable skills which can apply in a range of situations, not knowledge which may soon be irrelevant.
Unfortunately, as plausible as these arguments sound they aren’t backed up by the facts. Firstly, the idea that we can outsource memory to the internet is simply not true. In the words of Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has published a book explaining the latest neuroscientific research for an educational audience:
Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts…critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving…are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.
Skills and knowledge are bound up with each other, and any curriculum which marginalises knowledge is therefore doomed to fail.
UPDATE: Thanks to Sheila here is a link below which shows the same diagram for health and wellbeing (GIRFEC) that is being used in the video above for Curriculum for Excellence: I guess they would call that joined up working !