A problem with knowledge

I suspect that if I were to have ever spoken to the philosopher Robert Nozick, we would have found very little to agree on. Except one important point. He once said, “there is room for words on subjects other than last words”. And thank goodness for that! In a recent blog post where I said that the “trad” vs “prog” debate in education is missing the point, I fear I may have somewhat missed the point also.

I was attempting to illustrate how the overall issues affecting education are more important that the debate about how we teach. I made the comparison of a car heading towards chasm and two people inside arguing about the best way to drive. I’m not entirely sure that that analogy is actually very helpful. You see, the way we teach is intrinsically linked to the system itself.

Teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ to a group of year 10s recently we began to discuss the nature of poverty and social justice in the Victorian period. When I asked if anything had changed over the last century, many of them said yes — now there were benefits so people wouldn’t be left with absolutely nothing. When I raised another few questions about who decides what people get paid, who decides what work is valuable and how society works in general, I noticed a number of students becoming uncomfortable. One student told me that people who work hard, get rewarded and the people at the bottom, well they don’t want to work.

I could sense the discomfort some of these students felt at having views which they hold (and more likely, the views their parents hold and the students are exposed to) being challenged. Not directly you understand, but through raising questions in their own mind.

The problem, I believe, with a “trad” model is that it fetishises knowledge. I’m aware of and appreciate the necessity of knowledge and facts in different theories of learning and how we learn but this idea that we transmit all of the “best thinking” and “accumulated wisdom” to the students in our care is deeply problematic. Some people have argued that you need to lay the groundwork first before you introduce critical thinking skills — there’s not much point trying to teach someone critical thinking skills if they don’t actually know anything.

However, if it’s left too late there may well be deep-seated resistance to the altering of one’s assumptions and beliefs. For example, at what point in the curriculum do history students get to study about Britain’s use of concentration camps during the days of the empire? I know that I, in my Irish secondary school, certainly wasn’t taught about the support of many Irish republicans for Nazi Germany during the second world war. This would have gone entirely against the prevailing narrative of the time.

The nature of knowledge, which “trad” teaching is concerned with, is also deeply linked to the idea of power. Whose knowledge is being transmitted? A curriculum designer who designed the history that I studied at school in Ireland did not believe that I should know about the support many Irish republicans had for Nazi Germany. That some of them actively supported the Nazis and some local heroes even colluded with them, receiving support in the forms of weapons and munitions. That decision meant that, for many years, I thought of the second world war as an “us and them” conflict. Every time the second world war was mentioned, every time it was the context to a poem I was studying or even just as the backdrop to films I was watching or music I was hearing, I was not understanding it to its fullest because someone had decided that there existed knowledge that I needed to know and some that I didn’t.

This thinking is deeply unhelpful and conditions students into thinking the “right” way. This is not what we need. What we need for the future is students who question and challenge, who don’t sit meekly and absorb the knowledge that we, as teachers, or curriculum designers think is important. By getting students into the habit of accepting what is put before them without question, we will never have a critical mass of students going into the world who see society as something changeable and I think we can all agree that changing the society we currently have is something desirable indeed.

Like what you read? Give Peter Tobin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.