I spent some time in my younger days working as a brickie’s labourer. It was a tough job but I was young, I liked working outside, and I was working for a mate. We worked hard, finished each day with 3 or 4 beers and enjoyed actually building things. I say ‘we’, because my mate said I was the most important person on the job site. He took great pride in his work but always made a point of saying that he couldn’t achieve much if the mortar wasn’t perfect. I think we can use this as a metaphor in education generally.
There is lots of discussion in education circles about making sure students are ready for the rapid changes that the 21c is bringing. We need by all accounts collaborative, entrepreneurial, critical thinking and connected problem-solvers that construct their own knowledge to succeed in this new exciting world. There are any number of educhats and conferences that reflect this urgent, insatiable need to pass these skills on so that students may succeed in the new work order. I personally think this drive is something of an ill adventure but assuming it’s not, these skills mentioned above are the bricks of education. We just don’t seem to talk often enough about the mortar.
The mortar is strong basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Without this mortar the bricklayer (student) if not helpless, is at the very least laying less than stable brickwork. I was chided on more than one occasion for mixing up sub standard mortar on the job. It held up construction and made the job that much harder.
It’s not particularly popular on Australian edutwitter to mention that we have so many students finishing high school without strong foundations in literacy and numeracy. The main focus is what’s coming up around the corner to engage and drive student learning, and how can we disrupt the paradigm and rush to the new age. But we need to talk about the mortar. Yes, the piles of new bricks look great, but without the mortar to hold them together they are just a pile of bricks. Get you mortar mix right first, then we are ready to grab some bricks and we can start building.
Why is is that some people with an awful lot of knowledge thinks it’s okay to devalue same? We are all familiar with Sir Ken Robinson and his cry for ‘soft skills’ like creativity to be as valued as highly as knowledge. If we skip over the argument that the more knowledge you have the more creative you can be, I think there is something a bit amiss here.
What would be the motive of educators with vast stores of knowledge telling kids they don’t really need it as much, that in the 21c employers are looking for creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, entrepreneurship etc? I guess the simple answer is that they see the world changing and they want our students to fit into it. They want students to be fitted with the skills that 21c employers are looking for. Let’s skip over another argument here, shaping students for work is very much like the never tiresome ‘Industrial Model’ of schooling.
This seems like great news for disadvantaged kids. Here are a new set of skills that they can work on with their peers, ( in a student -directed model usually), and their lack of some very basic knowledge won’t hold them back. Except it rarely works like that. In a classroom that values the soft skills highly and tries to teach them, while taking time away from explicit knowledge instruction, the advantaged kids will still learn. I’m not sure if they will learn to be more creative or entrepreneurial, but they can get by on reduced knowledge instruction. They will still have the background foundations behind them, still have perhaps more support at home.
Unfortunately the disadvantaged souls will fall further behind, denied the opportunities that others take for granted. They will desperately miss some of the explicit instruction that has to make way for those 21c skills. (As a personal example, I once had a trainee teacher with me who let kids run their own 30 minute vocabulary lesson. She praised their collaboration and creativity in exploring a new word. She was stunned when I told her to save 25 minutes and explicitly teach the word and how to use it.) I think those calling for less knowledge because we can ‘Google it’ , or we need to build skills for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, or the general notion that knowing something just isn’t as important in the 21c, are becoming the ‘Knowledge Gatekeepers’. They are making knowledge acquisition harder, and perhaps entrenching the status quo.
I have yet to be convinced that those students who are lagging in basic literacy and numeracy foundations, including a much reduced vocabulary, and haven’t been exposed to a broad range of knowledge, are not going to suffer from less explicit knowledge instruction. (I’m skipping the argument about which knowledge). Educators make all sorts of value judgements about teaching. What’s best for whom and when. One judgment I’m happy to make is that those educators with knowledge should value it highly, for themselves and their students.