Sunday, 13 July 2014

Knowledge-based education versus transferable skills

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 !


  1. Here's a simple illustration of ho CfE links with the "wellbeing" agenda:

    Lifelong and lifewide monitoring for all:

  2. Excellent. I`ve updated the post by adding your first link.

    As some might say: `A picture paints a thousand words.`

  3. The point is that the Government did admit that GIRFEC is at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence. However, the different time-scales when these diagrams were used, suggests that the consultations were window dressing. It had all been planned.

  4. Thanks Alice. So glad that someone is keeping up with what is happening - I've been struggling recently...

    All very definitely planned - just wish someone could get through to the teachers the scale of the con that has gone on and what it means for their profession. The criticism is pretty scathing but they need to look at (at least) the slightly bigger picture.

    As the end of the video makes clear (as if we didn't know) this is a global agenda however Scotland is in the forefront of much of this as we have the "ideal conditions" (ie loads of data over time and a cosy clique at the "top") to make us a test bed. One recent example:

    Sorry, more links...

    And the original thread:

    Which takes us neatly back to CfE. That link to Graham's article seems to have gone dead but I've found it here:


  5. Teachers are coming out of training colleges full of these progressive ideas and probably believe that that`s the way to do things. More experienced teachers probably know better and will tweak their practice just enough to satisfy the assessors. So it is a bit of a lottery for children. But I believe the trend is downwards and the aim is to dumb down the next generation who won`t be able to think for themselves if CfE gets its way.

    Add to that the fact that parents are being pushed aside by way of named persons and the monitoring of children from day one, the next generation will not know what it is like to have a private life. Every day will be like judgement day.

    Then Scotland`s eight police forces merged into one mighty Police Scotland in April 2013 and now we have armed police patrolling the Highland Council.

    Join the dots and it`s easy to see what the experiment is - it`s not good.

  6. I`ve just read the article by Graham Leicester, director of IFF.

    International Futures Forum (IFF) - the name is a give away. They are change agents, supported by the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise. So you would expect Graham Leicester to wax lyrical about CfE which is itself a system for transformational change. He is explaining how Scottish education can move towards a system of excellence.

    He says: "We can’t serve these unknown needs simply by squeezing the last drop of performance or efficiency out of the systems... We also need “transformative innovation” – innovations, starting at small scale, that have the capacity over time to transform the system itself to deliver outcomes the existing system cannot even imagine."

    This is a man trying to say something without actually giving away what he means. He knows, or should know, what outcomes he and his global leaders are imagining.

    Decode the doublespeak and it`s the UN Agenda 21.

    It was interesting to read the comments of teachers on the TESS forum although most teachers looked at the issue from the teaching and learning perspective. Here are some comments:

    "Teachers are constantly asked about monitoring, evaluating and evidence gathering. Where is the empirical evidence that these changes are actually going to make a difference? It is a huge gamble."

    "Despite all of the current TV interviews, newspaper articles and Mike Russell's offers of help, I still don't understand what the damned thing is about ,let alone the new exams which are being hidden from us."

    "In my experience, most of those who are banging the drum for CfE are those whose job prospects depend upon it. So essentially, probationers, job seekers and those seeking management positions. It is debatable if most of these believe in what they are having to say."

    So that just about sums it up. Teachers on the whole are not impressed but few on the forum are looking at the `bigger picture.`