In the last few years, an increasing number of educationalists have started to question many of the trends, and fads, that have dominated education in the last decade or two. Daniel Willingham, Ed Hirsch Jr., Daisy Christodoulou, Robert Peal and many others others have questioned popular ideas such as ‘learning styles’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘content-independent critical thinking’, ‘inquiry-based learning’, ‘21st century skills’; not to mention a general tendency to favour method and process over knowledge, and an obsession with an apparent ‘need’ to make education ‘relevant’ to the lives of young people. The last of these is a particular bone of contention for history teachers in the UK and is typified in Ireland by ‘Project Maths’ where it seems inconceivable to those who designed the curriculum that many youngsters might actually find maths interesting for its own sake, regardless of its relevance to daily life.
But who needs knowledge in the Google age? Surely all that is important is to be able to access knowledge and to have the skills (whatever they may be) to critically interpret that knowledge? Or so the thinking goes even though it would seem very obvious that if one is to interpret knowledge extracted from Google, or elsewhere, one must have one’s own ‘database’ of knowledge. (Try Googling some random topic about which you know nothing and see how far you get.)
Many of these ‘new’ pedagogical ideas are plausible, seductive even. But the evidence for their efficacy, or even their very existence (in the case of learning styles), remain very poor. Even the ideas of one of one of the superstars of ‘new education’, Sir Ken Robinson, are being scrutinised and revealed to be all style and no substance.
My hope is that in 2015 we will begin to return to a more realistic view of education. Learning is not always fun and does not come naturally to us. Students are not toddlers, programmed by evolution to be incessantly curious about their environment. Learning requires study, practice, commitment and a recognition that even with the most ‘engaging’ teaching in the world, learning can be challenging. (The key to education is to get the level of the challenge right.) Furthermore, the foundations of creative thinking and all those higher order (‘21st century’) skills that people talk about are underpinned by discipline-specific knowledge and technique.
To some extent education has undergone something of an overshoot. In response to the often dreary approach to teaching that existed in the past, education has been gripped by a ‘learning is fun’ obsession, especially when it comes to maths and science. We need to find a new equilibrium, one that strikes a balance between the old and the new, one that puts knowledge (and skill) at the centre.