Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learning, Knowledge and Education

Let's start with some definitions. Learning is just being told a fact, for example, the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. Knowledge is retained learning. If you now remember the date of the Battle of Hastings or you now know which important event happened in 1066 then you have increased your knowledge.

Education is a totally different thing. You need knowledge to acquire education, but education changes your understanding of the world. So the fact that you now know the date of the Battle of Hastings (assuming that you didn't before) does not make you any more educated. However, now that you know that fact, you can explore the effect it had on Britain and the world. That fact on its own is of little use, it is the context relative to other facts that makes it interesting. You might now be in a position to discuss the effect of the Norman invasion on the legal system, the language and the culture of the British Isles. That in turn might raise questions on the effect rippling through to other cultures via the days of the British Empire. That debate is education. Being able to take a stance, defend it, amend it based on an objective assessment of the knowledge.

The current educational system in Britain concentrates heavily on knowledge. Tests at the ages of 7, 11 and 14 as well as the formal exams at 16 assess the level of knowledge rather than the level of education. These tests check whether the pupils can apply proscribed techniques from a fixed curriculum. Knowledge is good, a useful tool in the armoury of education, but it is not a substitute for imagination and objectivity. Neither of these is assessable, but both are crucial to the progress of the pupil and therefore the economy.

Those of us in the generation making decisions came up through a system where knowledge ruled and ability was only of use in higher education. It worked for us. It got us into positions of authority so it MUST work. Look at us.

There are many who survived despite the system rather than because of it. People like Albert Einstein, who was told by his teachers that he would never cope with the sciences and mathematics, achieved great things. Winston Churchill did not succeed at school yet went on to become the only head of government to be awarded a Nobel Prize for something other than peace (Literature in 1953). Sir Richard Branson is a multi-millionaire despite being dyslexic and a school drop-out. Sir Jackie Stewart left school at 16 with "learning difficulties" and went on to win the British skeet shooting title, become a member of the 1960 Olympic trap shooting squad as well as the most articulate Formula One world champion ... three times. One has to wonder what would have happened if they had not had to fight the system.

It is also interesting to speculate how many have not had the temperament of these but did have their level of ability to think creatively. Suppose we had a system of education as opposed to one of learning? Suppose that the systems allowed debate from an early age and fostered different ways of doing things rather than being "efficient"? It would mean less knowledge but more education - and surely that would be a bad thing. A technological society like ours needs people who can read, write and do sums. It does not need self-opinionated prima donnas.

There is no argument that the anything-goes mentality is wrong. However, so is the nothing-goes mentality. What matters are the consequences of a thought pattern. Teachers who feel secure will not have a problem accepting others views or arguing against those views if they disagree. If you think back to your time at school, it is not the teachers who knew most who inspired you, it was those who allow discussion that made you enthusiastic. The feeling of being a participant in in your education rather than having it "being done to you" stimulated your interest. Yet current teachers are being asked to follow set curricula and are being graded and funded according to how many ticks their charges receive. Hmmm!

Knowledge is necessary, but there are now many more sources of information. The Internet allows those who need it to look up the date of the Battle of Hastings or the fifth element. It would help if pupils knew these facts, but there is a net loss if the cost of ownership is higher than the perceived benefit. Knowledge can be obtained either by teaching or by research (active learning). Input to a pupil/student via the "need to know" is much more likely to become knowledge than that given as fact. Yes, we need teaching, but we also need that new knowledge to foster debate which encourages the acquisition of new knowledge outside the curriculum.

So what could replace the current system? As has been explained in an earlier blog, students should be able to claim atoms of learning. These may be taught atoms or they may be ones achieved through enthusiasm. The source is irrelevant, it is the number of atoms that matter. The subject matter is irrelevant (as long as the three R's are covered), it is the number of atoms that matter. Giving pupils/students a stake in their education must increase success and through that a more educated society.

What is given is learning. What is assessed is knowledge. What is needed is education.

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