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Katharine Birbalsingh: "Success in anything requires knowledge." 

Imagine you visit your child's school one day and observe a lesson. You might expect to listen to the story of the battle of Hastings, review the formation of clouds, or once again put your hand in Pip's and take a stroll through Victorian London. But instead you find you are observing a lesson where children are "learning to learn". The lesson starts with the objective that all pupils will be reflecting on their own learning. Then, there is a starter activity that requires the children to brainstorm key learning activities. Away they go — writing, reading, thinking. OK. The main activity consists of writing a "recipe" for the ideal learning experience — in groups. Finally, the plenary sums up what the children have learnt about learning.

Fascinating lesson. Except for one problem: this innovative, ground-breaking, 21st-century "preparing children for the modern world" lesson, contains no learning at all. There is no content, no actual knowledge that the children are writing, reading and thinking about. 
"Learning to Learn" is very real. It is held up as the pinnacle of the skills advocates' agenda. Learning isn't about what we learn: knowledge and content. It is about how we learn: skills like analysing, counting, ordering, forming an opinion, empathising and so on.  This brings us to the eye of the current educational storm, where Michael Gove, in trying to reform our education system, has dared to insist on a curriculum specifying the essential knowledge that our children should be taught.
Gove's reform has caused controversy because our state education system has been moving, for a long time, from teaching children "lots of stuff," to teaching them "skills" instead. This move accelerated greatly under Labour's recent administration. Of course, neither side of the Skills versus Knowledge debate would ever insist on learning through one side only.  One necessarily involves the other. To learn how to count, one must count something. And to learn one's numbers, one must involve the skill of counting.  Where then is the bone of contention?
It comes with the emphasis. The important thing is not whether children should read Great Expectations, be informed about Victorian London while reading a difficult text, come to form an opinion about working-class living conditions in those days, or compare these conditions to their modern-day counterparts. What matters is that children should learn to read, form an opinion, and compare. And any text will allow them to do this. 
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March 8th, 2011
11:03 AM
Jeremy Pointon Sorry my typing is lousy. That should have been £9000 not £90000 but its certainly not true that "the avg cost of schooling a kid privately as opposed to the public sector is a mere matter of another £wk per annum". I live in Edinburgh and can state quite catagorically that most of the private schools here charge around £9000 pa - and that's for the basics. You can add on another £1500 for school meals and the same again for other extras - ie hobbies or anything else outside the basic curriculum. If you want to go the whole hog there are also a couple that charge in the region of £20-25000 pa. I have no intention of supplyinhg a list. You can get on teh web and check them out if youy are that interested. It's all perfectly clear and upfront on their websites. This is not an issue soley about teh Labour party. The Tories haven't exactly covered themselves in glory. Just holding out a cartrot so that a handful of people capable of making heroic efforts can squeeze their kids through private education is only a solution for those people. There is a deeply rooted problem in Britain that requires a solution that recognises the needs of the whole nation - not just a lucky few.

Jeremy Poynton
March 5th, 2011
5:03 PM
andrewD fees of £90000 a year. List of schools charging £90,000 pa please. Googling will find that the avg cost of schooling a kid privately as opposed to the public sector is a mere matter of another £wk per annum. Given the importance of education, would it not have been better that Labour spent the billions it pissed away on this, that and the other, on really improving state education. However, as we all know, dogma is more important than the well-being of the country's kids. Vile.

March 3rd, 2011
10:03 PM
"West is best" is an absurd assumption anyway. It is an inverted conclusion based on a thoroughly incomplete analysis of the development of knowledge. Indeed it presumes that knowledge is a static lump, ring fenced by an inflexible culture when it is nothing of the sort. Our forebears used Roman numerals, a western invention and got along swimmingly for two thousand years or so. But the idea of zero emmantated from India and algebra from the Arabs. Did they say "west is best", we will keep our numerals thank you very much? Of course not, their value was recognised and new knowledge adopted. That is how it works and I learnt that at school.

March 2nd, 2011
10:03 AM
FRANK S - you are absolutely right. The powers that be are ensuring that the mass of kids get a very poor education compared to those who are able to send their childen to fee-paying (I hate the word "public" in this context - as it imnplies that members of the public are only those who can afford fees of £90000 a year)schools. This is quite deliberate and is simply to ensure that the same ruling class and a handful of aspirants who manage to meet the fees, monopolise the best opportunities for their children. Unfortunately its also a collosally short-sighted approach. As the world economy becomes ever more complex, Britain can only compete by having a highly skilled, highly educated workforce. But such an innovation would require major changes to the social system. This the current ruling class will not allow. Much better to allow major industries to be relocated offshore, provide poor education options for the majority and a Rolls Royce service for those that can pay and leave millions on the dole rather than in productive work. Then sniff at them as uncultured oafs and benefit scroungers. Never mind that Britain will decline voluntarily to the staus of a third-world state; never mind that freeborn Britons will be left living as uneducated peasants. The lucky few in London and the south east will have a high standard of living and access to a global economy. So that's alright then.

March 2nd, 2011
9:03 AM
It is impossible to even begin to understand the crisis in Western education altogether without taking into account the over-whelming influence of TV on the minds and bodies of children. TV is easily the most powerful formative influence. A good place to begin to understand the situation would be the book This Little Kiddy Went To Market by Sharon Beder. Plus Evolution's End by Joseph Chilton Pearce.

February 27th, 2011
1:02 AM
I'm not sure Miss Birbalsingh understands language teaching (or even this general debate) as much as she would have us believe. The skills she talks about are one part of a broad spectrum of skills that children are taught in schools - she's trying to suggest that all we do is focus on a few techniques and methods. The reason that private school children do better is down to a number of social and financial reasons; a return to a knowledge-based curriculum would widen the gap as well as making state-educated children less equipped for the job market. It's laughable what she says about privately-educated students travelling the world (my students would love to travel the world but guess what - They can't afford a £400 weekend in Barcelona or Paris) To give a simple example - i can teach my students the words agua & fiesta in Spanish (knowledge) but then what happens when they have a new word made up of the two: 'aguafiestas'?. I could tell them that it means a 'party-pooper' (someone who throws water on the party); but what happens when they come across another word like this? They need the skill of parsing texts for themselves (learning independently/learning how to learn) Knowledge is only useful when you know what to do with it. I wonder what her explanation of this is...

February 26th, 2011
10:02 PM
Of course context matters and skills cannot be learnt in isolation. Those who solve the o-level question above are likely to do so through the use of a number of higher order problem solving skills, rather than knowledge of the answer. Wouldn't Hard Times be a better Dickens novel than Great Expectations for the new curriculum?

Frank S
February 26th, 2011
7:02 PM
It's probably intended to keep the lower orders in their place - something reinforced by the secondary intake policy based on catchment area.

February 24th, 2011
9:02 PM
It seems to me that one of the roles of public education is to pass on a common body of knowledge, a common framework of reference, so that everyone at least recognises the names of great authors, significant historical events, scientific achievements, great composers etc. This common framework is one of the elements contributing to a cohesive society. It appears to have been removed. Divide and impera? On another note, a very smart person once told me that at his school a whole year of History was taken up by learning about "Mary Celeste." Yes, "Mary Celeste" - as the means of learning to recognise primary and secondary evidence. He was unable to tell me when the Industrial Revolution happened. Sad. As to those who rabidly oppose Katharine's stance, why do they think it is better that children know less?

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