Opinion: ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho

‘Skills v knowledge’ debate misses the crux of education, The Australian, 10 September 2022

Education is a hotly debated area. This is as it should be – what could be more important to the future of our community and country than the high-quality education of our children?

The downside is that the very debate itself sometimes becomes needlessly polarised and not focused on progressing towards meaningful change.

That polarisation played out last weekend in this newspaper with the publication of the views of two education experts on what was needed to lift educational equity.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD, claimed we needed more focus on capabilities such as critical and creative thinking in the Australian Curriculum. Ben Jensen (with Mailie Ross) from Learning First, contrary to Schleicher, suggested the curriculum has too much focus on skills and not enough on specific knowledge content.

Unfortunately, too many debates about Australia’s education system feature the “knowledge” faction lining up against the “skills” faction, throwing rhetorical bombs at one another or talking to their own Twitterverse. This argument about the relative balance between knowledge and skills in the curriculum risks perpetuating a false dichotomy.

Knowledge expands through the development of skills such as critical and creative thinking, and such skills cannot be developed in a content-free zone. “How People Learn” by the US National Research Council is clear: “Research on expertise in areas such as chess, history, science and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter.

“‘Usable knowledge’ is not the same as a mere list of disconnected facts but rather expert knowledge is connected and organised around important concepts. It supports understanding and transfer to other contexts rather than only the ability to remember.”

The effective teaching of content knowledge so that it is properly understood involves the development of discipline-specific skills. The Australian Curriculum states what these skills are – but not at the expense of knowledge.

Schleicher appears to under-appreciate the importance of knowledge in the curriculum, suggesting that it needs to be trimmed further – despite the new Australian Curriculum having 20 per cent less content. Again, this just reinforces the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills, as if knowledge was just a long list of facts, with some crying “Long list good, short list bad”, as Orwell may have put it, and others crying the opposite.

The truth is a synthesis of these (admittedly caricatured) positions. Knowledge is not just a collection of facts, but a way of understanding organised facts that have been – arranged into intelligible patterns by cognitional acts of inquiry, imagination, experimentation, intelligence, reason and reflective judgment. Knowledge and skills develop together, not separately.

However, much of what Jensen and Ross say is insightful. They are certainly right about the pernicious persistence of what Noel Pearson has referred to as the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is on show whenever, in the name of “engagement”, insufficient direction is given to students about what they need to learn as opposed to what they may want to learn – or we fail to expose them to the kind of theoretical, decontextualised knowledge that takes them beyond their current contexts. We need to offer them access to a world beyond their own horizon. This kind of knowledge is powerful because of its capacity to challenge the social distribution of power such that anyone, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can engage meaningfully with – and influence – public conversations.

The soft bigotry of low expectations is also evident whenever it is argued students from disadvantaged communities are not sufficiently academically able to take on a curriculum that expands their horizons in this way, so we need to box them into their own context and make learning “relevant” to them by only exposing them to things they are already familiar with, or only things that they are interested in learning about.

Jensen and Ross suggest the alleged lack of specificity in the knowledge content in the curriculum means there is too much potential variability in what is taught in the classroom. They argue that this variability plays out in ways that deprive disadvantaged students of access to the kind of “powerful knowledge” that more socio-economically advantaged students get at school.

This is a debate worth having; however, they overstate the degree of variability that is available in the curriculum. They select a particular example of a content description in year 8 History that has a relatively broad scope and suggest this is representative of the whole curriculum. They neglect to mention the detailed content elaborations that provide teachers with specific content.

There are multiple counter-examples that specify in concrete detail what needs to be taught when, and to what standard. What Jensen and Ross perceive as a lamentable degree of potential variability in what content is taught is, arguably, really a reflection of one of the strengths of the Australian Curriculum: that it needs to be approved by all nine ministers and is developed through a process of consultation with educators as well as the broader community.

It is the result of democratic dialogue and consensus in a federal system of government and has to be a hybrid between both a high-level framework and a detailed syllabus while being flexible enough to allow different states and territories to work within it but also sufficiently comprehensive to provide guidance to teachers.

Inevitably, different commentators, who don’t have the responsibility of fashioning that consensus, will see flaws from their perspective. Some will say there’s too much flexibility, others will say there’s not enough. But without some degree of flexibility, there would be no agreement to a national framework that articulates the common learning entitlement for all Australian children.

What Jensen and Ross have rightly highlighted is that we don’t actually know the degree to which the Australian Curriculum is being adopted and adapted. There is an important piece of work to be done by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority in coming years, working with jurisdictions to get a better understanding of the degree of variation across the country.
Their other very valid argument is for the development of a comprehensive suite of professionally developed teaching support resources, aligned with the Australian Curriculum, to help flesh it out for purposes of classroom teaching.

Jensen and Ross cite Estonia and Louisiana as examples of improved performance. What they have in common – along with Singapore and other high-performing, high-equity systems – is the availability of government-funded, evidence-based, curriculum-linked teaching resources that can be accessed by any teacher anywhere. Analysis of these systems’ resources to identify criteria for what good quality looks like would be an important first step to ensure the intended curriculum is planned and delivered equitably and with integrity.

Ultimately, it is the quality of the teaching that has the biggest impact on the student. A good teacher can make a so-called “boring” subject exciting, and a poor teacher can make even the most exciting topics lifeless. The kinds of instructional resources Jensen and Ross call for could play a useful role here, helping to address a shortage of specialist teachers and, in the process, helping reduce the degree of any inequitable variation in the way the curriculum is delivered.

That is what could really make for effective improvement, for excellence, and for equity in our education system.