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charlie, computer cat

September 2017

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sunflower

Knowledge and skills

I have been whiling away some of my holiday time reading around some of the knowledge vs skills debate that's been going on among teachers on twitter for the last couple of months. Most of the people I follow already have been on the knowledge side of the debate and I've felt like, more so than when looking at politics or similar, I've had to work quite hard to break out of that bubble to find the people with the opposing views (something I think I'm only beginning to succeed at). I haven't come to any conclusions or anything, or my own contribution to the debate yet, but my reading did spark the memory of an anecdote which feels relevant to me about my Year 13 mocks.

We studied Literature of Protest as one of our English Lit modules (that was where I first read the Handmaids Tale) and as well as our set text work there was an unseen texts paper. For our mock, the unseen text for that module was a poem called "White Poetess" by Musaemura Zimunya (I've looked, and sadly, I can't find a copy of the poem online) asking us to comment on how effectively the poet's protest was communicated to the reader. Briefly, the poem scorns the titular white poetess for her simple, superior view of Africa and Africans and for her romanticisation of the beauty of the landscape without acknowledging the Africans who live there. I wasn't particularly great at poetry analysis and I cobbled together a rough plan and had written nearly a page of it when I had one of the only genuine lightbulb moments of my own that I remember in my education. In the last stanza, the poem talks about the poetess going home and writing about "the Rhodesian veld". The word had been nagging at me for a while, and I suddenly remembered what Rhodesia was, and what the deliberate use of that word meant, particularly given that the poet had mentioned Zimbabwe earlier on. That one piece of knowledge unlocked the whole poem for me, brought the rest of the text into focus, to the extent that I remember actually crossing out the waffly essay I'd written so far and starting again.

When we went over the mock in class after they'd been marked, it transpired that I was the only person in my 12 person class who knew anything about Rhodesia or what the use of that word signified and quite a few of the other students claimed the question was unfair because there was no reason they should be expected to have this piece of random knowledge anyway. I have no idea where I'd picked it up - we hadn't studied the empire at all in the history I was doing at school, but I always have been a sponge for random information (although not science facts, oddly) so I imagine I read it somewhere and it stuck.

I'm still not entirely sure where this anecdote fits into the current knowledge vs skills debate. My knowledge unlocked the poem for me in a very powerful way. I only rarely connect to poetry as a form, and that sense of sudden understanding was exciting and precious. I kept a copy of the poem afterwards, which I still have today, and as you can see, the memory is fresh in my mind, so on the surface it seems to argue towards the teaching of knowledge.

I'm not so sure though. I do think there was some validity in the other students complaints that the question was unfair. The world is absolutely full of random knowledge like that - it was purest co-incidence that I happened to know of it and I don't think there could have been any reasonable expectation that our English Lit teacher would equip us with even a fraction of the possible historical allusions which might come up in the poetry of protest. And it wasn't that piece of knowledge alone which brought the poem to life in that moment for me - it was the skills of literary analysis which I'd been taught which allowed me to understand the depth of what the poet was doing with that word choice. Both knowledge and skills were vital to that moment. Most of the students knew a little about the British Empire - would it not have been reasonable to have included a footnote with the specific definition of Rhodesian?

Where I'm working now is at a very different stage in the learning journey of my students than I was at that point and I definitely think that there is value in exposing the children to a wide range of facts at this stage - who knows what will stick? But of course, as the possessor of a brain which is naturally filled with random facts, this is not so hard for me to accomplish and, given my teaching style, actually seems to be basically inevitable. Maybe the conclusion I'm coming to is, in this knowledge/skills tug-of-war, perhaps different teachers need to focus on different things. I often think about skills in my lesson planning but that's partly because I know that the knowledge content will be there anyway but that if I don't think about making the skills of using it explicit that won't happen automatically - other teachers are probably the other way around.

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