I walk the line

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the Cultural Literacy theory for its implied authoritarianism. After all, there are a number of theories that define what is to be learnt. Threshold concepts, for example, involves the identification of a set of concepts that students need to internalise in order to see the world as their teachers do. Is that so different?

I suspect that the key difference between the two is that Threshold concepts are just that: concepts. They are ideas that help us to make sense of the world. I would guess that the content of a Cultural Literacy syllabus is more prosaic. Spiders have eight legs. Henry VIII succeeded Henry VII. Mixing red and yellow pigment makes orange pigment. These are facts, and as I have already argued, facts change. Essentially we are back to the discussion about surface and deep learning and the role of rote teaching.

There is another factor to consider? Is Cultural Literacy about learning at all? Perhaps it is more about being able to function effectively in society; to know what we presume others know so as not to appear ignorant. In that sense it could be more about the appearance of learnedness rather than actual learning (i.e. talking the talk rather than walking the walk).

Perhaps most damningly, it is about safe knowledge. In the same way that once reviled people like Nelson Mandela and Mohammad Ali are now revered, is it possible that knowledge is only acceptable once a disruptive concept has weathered a little? Does a Cultural Literacy syllabus reject the contemporary and in doing so discouraging exactly the kind of thinking that it is – very retrospectively – celebrated? Do Copernicus, Darwin and Picasso only get a look in because they are safely dead and buried?

Or put simply, is an iPhone a more successful learner than I am? After all, it can answer all kinds of questions, and will – usually – do so succinctly and speedily. If the proponents of the Cultural Literacy model hold sway then perhaps we could let our phones take classes in our stead.


To infinity and beyond…

To me, there are two obvious counter-points to the idea that you need to give students a background knowledge in something before they make sense of it for themselves.

The first one is: when do you stop? You could say that in order to learn about the origins of the Second World War you would need to know about the First World War. That seems reasonable, but why stop there? Why not also learn about the First Sino-Japanese War, or the history of industrialized conflict, or the suffrage movement, or the history of equity markets. Pretty soon you’ll be stuck in an infinite loop of ‘background’ questions until you’re wondering who lit the touch paper on the big bang.

The second one is: who gets to choose what is important? In student-centred models of learning a student is encouraged to think, and to question, and to generally accept that knowledge is a big, messy, expanding ball of stuff that needs to be untangled. In the cultural literacy model someone makes that decision for you. Someone is saying that this is more important than that. Even with the very best of intentions it is easy to imagine how this might create a rather partial view of the world.

As an example, I was recently asked to look at the national curriculum for art and design. It included the sentence ‘Pupils should learn about the achievements of great artists and designers.’ According to who, I wondered at the time (and still do). There has been a lot of artists and designers in the history of the world, so how do you compile a list of them, or select the criteria to whittle them down to a manageable number. It seems an absurd task. In addition, what is the value of doing so in the first place? You don’t want people to do what they did (after all, it’s already been done). Isn’t there more value in debating why someone is considered great rather than noting that they are?

To me the cultural literacy model seems excessively paternalistic. It puts knowledge into frames and asks you to admire it from behind the boundary rope. It may be a disadvantage not to know who Job was, or how to calculate the radius of a circle, or which crown Hamlet was after but it is not the measure of a person, or their potential.


It *is* what you know.

Despite all their differences, the theories investigated so far have shared one thing in common: an emphasis on context over content. Whether it be threshold concepts or rhizomatic learning, the common rallying cry is ‘more than facts.’ For that to be meaningful  there must be something arguing the opposite, otherwise it becomes as empty as the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statement of intent (“I want a fairer society where hard-working families get to enjoy the benefits of their labour free from tyranny…).*

So, is anyone calling for more facts? Yes there is, sort of. In his book ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know‘ Professor E.D. Hirsch argues that the presumed tension between knowledge and thinking skills is a false dichotomy. In his view, knowledge builds on knowledge, and a grounding in key background knowledge is essential both in promoting learning and in ensuring that people can participate equally in democratic life.

For example, take the origins of the second world war. To make sense of that it could be argued that you would need to know:

  • Who the countries involved are
  • Where the countries involved are
  • That there was a First World War
  • Why there was a First World War
  • That there was a Great Depression in the 1930’s
  • About different styles of government

Without that grounding the event might seem baffling. Having that knowledge helps a learner to make links between ideas, events and people. Not knowing about those things might be alienating inasmuch as it could create a sense of insecurity with and inferiority to those that do.

So, this month I will be investigating whether we should re-think the surface/deep learning dichotomy and return to a conception of learning where knowledge really is power.

* I once heard Peter Allen, a Radio 5 live presenter, say that a good test for this is if a statement can be reasonably expressed in reverse (i.e. who is going to argue for a ‘poorer society’).