Facts or skills? Truth is, education needs both

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How many times have you been told that you need to develop “employability skills” during the entirety of your education? Over the past decade or so, the emphasis on skills-based learning as opposed to learning facts by rote has, I think, been metaphorically shoved down our throats. Ofsted and the government have both jumped on the bandwagon to the extent that fact-based learning has, in popular opinion, been virtually eradicated from the educational system. Certainly this is what Daisy Christodoulou, former teacher and University Challenge champion, purports in her book: Seven Myths About Education. Christodoulou disputes these seven myths that she has thought up – most concerning the modern emphasis on skills – creating shockwaves in the world of education.

Christodoulou has, to some extent, correctly put a dent in Ofsted’s skills-based armour. There is absolutely no way that learning skills only can give a child a comprehensive education. It is necessary to learn the basic facts, such as times tables, biological facts, physics equations or chemical principles, before a student can usefully apply that knowledge and transform it into a skill. For example, before you can understand why a metal fizzes when added to acid, you first need to learn the basic principle that acid + metal = salt + hydrogen. Equally, to have any proficiency in maths, you have to know the times tables from a young age to be able usefully apply those facts later in your academic life.

What the reaction to Christodoulou’s book has given the impression of, however, is that facts alone can get you through life, and that teaching facts is far more important than teaching transferable skills. Of course, as university students, we all know that skills are vital – the University offers the Lancaster Award for demonstrating skills, we all need skills to put on our CVs, and modules at Lancaster often have a list of “learning outcomes” which include transferable skills. Equally, there’s also the difficulty of basic facts not necessarily being comprehensive enough for us to apply to every situation. Going back to the acid and metal equation, in an A-level exam you could be given any equation involving any acid and any metal, and often you would be required to balance such equations. Only by having the necessary problem-solving skills can students possibly succeed at this – and this is something that Christodoulou seems to have completely missed.

Variety in teaching is the key. Two of Christodoulou’s myths read: “teacher-led instruction is passive” and “projects and activities are the best way to learn”. The reality is that teaching is far more complicated than that. My GCSE Biology and Physics lessons were prime examples that teacher-led instruction can indeed be entirely passive. Having got access to a new system, in the majority of my Biology and Physics lessons our time was spent staring at a computer and filling in missing words from sentences about whatever topic we were studying. This, according to my teachers at the time, sufficiently covered the topics. Now, of course, I cannot remember a single thing I learnt, and even in the middle of my GCSEs revision was made considerably more difficult because we’d barely learned the knowledge in the first place to be able to apply it as a skill during the exam.

Entirely fact-based learning is counter-productive, but equally entirely project-based learning is counter-productive too. There’s always the possibility of having to work with someone lazy and incompetent for projects, making the skills-based activity pointless and unrewarding. Only by balancing the amount of fact-based learning and skills-based activity can our education move forward.

Even at degree-level, such a balance is key to learning effectively – contrary to what Christodoulou’s book seems to suggest. Depending on your subject area, researching for facts is probably core to what you do before forming your own critical opinion using the problem-solving and analytical skills that you have developed during your academic career. Only by combining the two can you truly succeed.
The debate about Christodoulou’s book should not about completely discounting either facts or skills; it should be about improving Ofsted’s and the government’s outlook on the best education for British students. The only myth about education that needs to be dispelled is that one system fits all. Thankfully teachers across the country are becoming more and more aware of the fact that all students learn differently, meaning that a variety of activities – including rote learning, projects, group activities and the like – is essential to provide for everyone in a group of 20-30 students. There is no point discrediting skills learning as at some stage everyone is going to become best buddies with the words “employability skills”, but the facts behind that applicable knowledge still need to be drilled into every student across the country.

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