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’).


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