Society likes to question why teachers hang on to tradition. Why have schools not progressed, a politician may ask, when the rest of society has moved on? It seems to bother society that, in education, tradition just won’t seem to die. Targets in these debates tend to be what we teach (the specific types of knowledge and skills we pass on) and how we teach (most often, the layout of the classroom and the pedagogy this encourages). Neither has shifted too much over a long period of time – teachers still teach concepts and skills taught 100 years ago, and many still teach in rows.
There is a very good reason for this, of which many teachers understand, but the debate definitely isn’t settled within education. There are, alas, some teachers who embody the same type of thinking as others in society: that an ever-changing world necessitates a change in the way teachers teach and students learn. The transmission of knowledge and basic skills are not seen as the priority. Instead, the ability to use higher order cognitive/academic skills – critical thinking, analysis, argumentation, problem-solving, research, creativity – should take priority over the transmission of knowledge and basic skills.
This rationalises a change in the physical environment of the classroom. Rows perish in favour of flexible learning spaces, wherein more freedom to engage in higher-order skills is thought to take place. At the heart of changing the physical environment of the classroom is the belief that modernity, with all its knowledge-rich possibilities, makes learning about the way things were or are obsolete. The underlying common fund of knowledge of our society is no longer necessary to thrive in society, and it, therefore, does not need to be transmitted by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom. They should stand aside! They should make way for the questioning of possibilities, debating of concepts and creating of ideas, for that is how students will make our world a better place. It’s a way of learning that rejects tradition in favour of the future. This is often what society calls for, and there are some teachers who agree.
Yet many teachers don’t agree. They still teach in rows; they continue to hold onto tradition, rejecting widespread calls for radical shifts in how we teach. Why do these teachers dwell in the past when the future is already here? These teachers, the ones stuck in the past, know that it is through the passing down of the best that has been thought and said that we empower young people to question the truth and make better of what we have. They understand that you cannot question, analyse or think critically to any effect if you do not understand what you are questioning, analysing or thinking critically about in the first place. And the better you understand it, the better you will be able to do these things. Futurists, so blinded by modernity, forget these simple truths.
Teachers who have not abandoned tradition know that we will have no progress in society without passing on what our culture already knows. People looking in from the outside (and even teachers from within) may find it hard to conceptualise what that practically means. That’s because someone who has mastered a skill easily overlooks how useful that skill is, and how hard that skill is to acquire. It’s actually really hard to learn basic stuff. That’s why teachers spend so long on things that may seem like a waste of time in the scheme of things but are actually really important. Proper use of a comma, times tables, sentence variation, the causes of WWII, climate zones – these may all seem like minor skills and pieces of knowledge not worth knowing too much about, but in reality, all of them are important for engagement in wider society. Great writers cannot be great without good sentence variation; mathematicians will not succeed without good times table knowledge. Human societies of the future will have little hope of avoiding our natural tendency to destroy the world and each other if they do not know basic facts about past and present realities. It’s important for kids to know this stuff; It may shock some to find that lots of kids don’t.
All teachers understand that just knowing stuff is not enough. This is where everyone converges in their beliefs: what kids do with their knowledge is just as, if not more, important than possessing the knowledge itself. Yet it is not widely understood that minor skills and pieces of knowledge are essential in ensuring kids do great things with their knowledge. Students who do not possess a secure, vast store of minor skills and pieces of knowledge of this type will have very little hope of engaging in those higher order skills considered more important for the future. Findings from cognitive science make it clear that it is not possible to engage in any form of higher order thinking without acquiring basic concepts within a domain. It is as Willingham writes in Why Don’t Students Like School?, “Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline.” If we want kids to do great things, they need to build on basic concepts – basic concepts that have been part of traditional teaching practices for decades.
Tradition will not die in schools because teachers know that modernity can best be approached with lessons from the past. History moves forward at the intersection of what is known and how we question what is known. In order to question what is known, you need to know, and know well. All those small, seemingly insignificant pieces of knowledge and skills, aren’t so insignificant at all; they’re needed to help kids move the future forward. Passing that down has been a core tenant of traditional practice for decades, and that’s why traditional practices aren’t going anywhere.