Education falls victim to a lot of misinformation. Phonics has been demonised for a very long time and the role of knowledge in the learning process has been suppressed. Some teachers have been forced to adopt ideas and practices that are obsolete – told to sit back and let the students figure things out instead of taking the reins. Misinformation has lead to some pretty dodgy pseudoscientific ideas, too (learning styles anyone?). It is an ongoing problem, but there are many organisations and individuals working like mad to change things. The NSW Department of Education is certainly helping the cause of late. June-July 2019 has brought us a few very important reads from the Department that help clear things up around the misconceived ‘general capabilites’, a notorious victim of misinformation and ill-conceived ideas.
General capabilities are thought of as generic, transferable skills included in the revised Australian Curriculum following the 2008 Melbourne Declaration. Gonski 2.0, a recent report on the future direction of education in Australia, recommended systems ‘strengthen the development of the general capabilities.’ Critics have stressed that the problem with the capabilities is that they are not at all general and that naming them general capabilities may lead to a lot of misinformation and bad practice.
The NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) has sought to dispel some of the misinformation through the lessons to be learnt from cognitive science. Under the subtitle How general are they? They write:
Perhaps the most confusing term used to describe these capabilities is general. The Australian Curriculum, for example, uses the term ‘general capabilities’ to refer to the ‘knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that will assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st Century (Australian Curriculum n.d.). As will be discussed below, however, evidence from cognitive science suggests that these capabilities cannot be considered general or transferable across knowledge domains (Tricit &Sweller 2014; Willingham 2017). Rather, evidence indicates that such capabilities are actually highly specific to particular areas of knowledge.”
A major issue with the talk about general capabilities is that they are often proposed as alternatives to a more traditional, knowledge-based focus through subject disciplines. And this ill-informed argument, I argue, leads to some pretty dodgy practices in schools. Teachers are all too familiar with the Daisy Christodoulou’s third myth: the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything. This is the driving force behind the promotion of the general capabilities as a genuine alternative to traditional schooling. With the arrival of the internet, many argue that knowledge acquisition is no longer important, and that students’ ability to be capable seeking out and using information in diverse settings is much more important. The lessons we learn from cognitive science tell a very different story.
Daniel Willingham, a well-respected cognitive scientist whose work focuses on K-16 education, has written for Education: Future Frontier, another initiative of the NSW Department of Education, about how one of the general capabilities – critical thinking – should be taught in schools. In this paper, Willingham challenges the idea that this very important general capability is general at all. He argues that it should not be approached in a general sense. He cites the seminal work done by Simon on Chess expertise, which concludes that a master Chess player’s ability to think critically about a Chess position is inextricably linked to the knowledge they have of Chess positions – knowledge novices do not possess.
This conclusion, that your ability to think critically about a topic is dependent on your knowledge of the topic, has far-reaching implications. In terms of evaluating an argument, an important academic skill, Willingham writes:
“This point is rather obvious in the case of a critical thinking skill like evaluating an argument: abstract principles like “look for hidden assumptions” won’t help much in sizing up an op-ed about the war in Afghanistan if you know very little about the topic. Never mind evaluating the topic in the op-ed, if you lack background knowledge of the topic, ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not comprehend the author’s claims in the first place (Willingham, 2017). That is because writers (and speakers) omit information they assume their audience already knows. For example, a writer might warn that the US could “find itself in the Soviet role in this long-standing war,” assuming that the reader knows that the Soviet Union fought a costly, unsuccessful war there in the 1980s.”
The lesson to be learnt from cognitive science is that you cannot teach a skill like critical thinking in a general sense because it is not a general skill. This has important implications for curriculum design and delivery. Developing novel tasks independent of the subject domain to teach critical thinking is likely to be ineffective. Yet it happens. As a very broad example, inquiry-learning models are of course an important part of any learning process, but to teach full ‘units of inquiry’ (sometimes interdisciplinary) to target general capabilities like critical thinking is misconceived. The conclusion from cognitive science is to not treat skills as generic in nature, but in terms of the role they play in specific knowledge domains.
Explicit instruction, although used widely across the world, isn’t considered a good model of pedagogy to promote general capabilities. Yet from what we have learnt from cognitive science, this is a misconception: learning content in a structured way lends itself to knowledge acquisition, which will help students use the capabilities within that domain. In terms of critical thinking, Willingham suggests a four-step plan to teach this capability:
- identify what is meant by critical thinking in each domain (and be specific about the tasks students must do to demonstrate it)
- Identify the domain content that students must know
- Select the best sequence in which to learn the knowledge and skills
- Decide which skills should be revisited across time
The effect of dispelling misinformation and embracing the logical conclusions of cognitive science could have a direct, lasting impact on schools and the results they achieve for their students. In the last publication to be produced in July 2019 by the NSW Department of Education, NSW CESE delivers a case study of Blue Haven Public School. This is my favourite of the three reads because it truly celebrates the success this school is having by embracing good ideas in education and by rejecting the anti-intellectualism that pervades.
Between 2016 and 2018, Blue Haven experienced rapid growth in student academic performance in large part due to the adoption of explicit instruction as the core approach to teaching and learning. There teaching practice is informed by the findings of cognitive science such as Cognitive Load Theory. The general capabilities are no doubt taught within the subject domain as supported by the findings of cognitive science outlined in the publications mentioned above. I love hearing about schools delivering such outstanding results because it is real. The numbers have a real impact on real students.
The reading list at the end of the article, hand-chosen by the staff of BHPS, is an amazing example of how engaged the school is with good ideas in education. I strongly encourage everyone to read at least some of it to become better informed. Being better informed will allows us teachers to dispel the misinformation and move towards what we all want to achieve: better results for our kids.
I applaud the Department’s efforts to spread evidence and good ideas. To the faceless individuals behind this work I say: please keep going!