Core knowledge

Yesterday’s OLDaily was filled with multiple thoughtful considerations about core knowledge, 21st century skills, and their assessment.

“why is a common core necessary for the teaching of skills, and why is testing of that core necessary.”

I think there is no reasonable answer for these questions, but I can guess what tacit discomfort and experiences may have lead to the misguided or even perverted concept of core knowledge.

  • First, there is the deterrent archetype of the blinkered specialist (in German “Fachidiot” = expert idiot/ tunnel-visioned, one-track specialist). This was very vivid in my school days in the 60s when the importance of ever more knowledge became apparent. Older teachers then pointed to the old ideal of broad “general” knowledge (German: “Allgemeinbildung“) which was supposed to be common for people in sciences and humanities alike.
  • But on the other hand, the new generalists made a bad impression on us, as well, because of their shallow superficiality, which was often paired with substanceless eloquency. This is particularly annoying when they talk about soft skills and seem to have no complementing hard skills. (Or when they author curriculum requirements about “competencies” so abstract that everybody notices how far remote they are from everyday school life.)

So I would acknowledge that some deep knowledge is required before critical skills can be perfected. But it should definitely serve only as exemplary topics, not as an end in itself. And I would acknowledge that these samples of deep knowledge must be broadly dispersed, to roughly provide a lateral cut overview and to guarantee the diversity whose importance I learned in CCK08.

I had the great fortune of a maths teacher in 8th grade who admitted that maths did not have any direct usefulness for us but was only indirectly useful to learn a certain way of thinking. (At that time, maths’ dominance was not yet so unquestioned, and the alternative attitude would have been that it was of no utility at all.)

And it was similarly indirect how assessments worked: Of course the teachers asked us for the content and factual knowledge but they trusted that we developped some thinking skills as a side effect of engaging with the contents and understanding their relationships. After all, understanding the relationships made it easier and more fun to memorize the facts.

  • This sort of indirect assessment, of course, would not meet today’s standards of exact, transparent, “fair” measurement. Industrial mass exams without legal vulnerabilities have to be different, and while they were being perfected, the focus on measurable content turned memorizable facts into an end in itself, and the amount of subject matter to be memorized increased and still increases. I guess that it is the discomfort with this insane amount of memorization that leads some people to welcome the idea of a “core” of knowledge.

It is indeed an interesting challenge to sort out what factual knowledge can more quickly be looked up on the internet and which can more quickly be looked up in one’s brain. Probably, the latter type will shrink to a small set of orientation knowledge which is more prominent for younger grades. But the intended preservation of the experts’ social status will probably require a very different selection of the “core”.

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One Response to Core knowledge

  1. “some deep knowledge is required before critical skills can be perfected.” Agreed.
    Once there was an adult “learner” who insisted that he be assessed with access to internet in an test (exam), and so for every question that the assessor posed, he would use the internet to check out the answer. He thought that was the most suitable method of assessment for him. I could just *sigh…My point is: assessment is not about using the internet to check out the answer to the question…Eventually I think he got what he wanted – recognition from another provider….
    This reminded me of your point:”It is indeed an interesting challenge to sort out what factual knowledge can more quickly be looked up on the internet and which can more quickly be looked up in one’s brain.” I agree that “After all, understanding the relationships made it easier and more fun to memorize the facts.”

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