The Disturbing Debate.

There is one aspect of the current national debate around the future of education and the nature of our assessment system that is disturbing me.

There seems to be a trend amongst some participants [media and educators] in this important debate to define educators as being in one of two opposing camps. All too often I read articles or hear conversations that imply, or even directly claim, that a teacher is either traditional or innovative, that they work in traditional environments or innovative, flexible ones and, most disturbingly, that they are concerned with either imparting knowledge or developing skills. This superficial and simplistic concept that as an educator you are in one camp or the other, and that there are somehow two opposing fractions that are at war with each other over the future of education in New Zealand would be amusing if it wasn’t so obviously fictitious.

The truth is teachers in this country exist in environments that are innovative or creative depending on their personal positioning and the activities they are engaging their learners in, and all teachers are a mix of traditional and innovative in their pedagogy for the same reasons. The division is not black and white but dependent on the teacher, the task, the subject, the school and a number of other factors. The idea that educators are somehow in a ‘knowledge’ camp or a ‘skills based’ one though is the most absurd division of all. This would be amusing if it wasn’t  actually insulting.

I fail to see how a teacher can be in a ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills based’ camp because I can’t see where the division between the two lies, I can’t see where the battle lines would be drawn and why we would want to draw them even if they were definable. There is a strong link between knowledge and skill development and I would argue that knowledge by itself with no skill development is pointless and that skill development without knowledge acquisition is, at best, superficial and meaningless. The two are complementary, almost interdependent and go together naturally.

As Noam Chomsky said;

Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own. . . “

To frame it another way, the development of transferable skills enables learners to use knowledge in a meaningful way and to empower them to know where search for more knowledge and how to use it.

To elaborate I want to discuss an afternoon in my life as a Principal last week . One of the most pleasurable tasks I had on this particular afternoon was to adjudicate two Year 10 debates. One moot was concerned with the perils of social media and the other with the dangers of teenage driving. The debaters were not members of any club or necessarily skilled orators, this was just an class based activity that they were presenting as part of their core learning programme and they certainly were able to deliver impressive debates. They presented their cases, rebutted the opposition and worked as a team with considerable skill. This was an example of how, in any class, we, as teachers, are concerned with a happy marriage of skills and knowledge not an oppositional divide between the two.  The learners had researched their topics and presented facts, figures and data to support their arguments, they understood and worked well within the protocols of a debate. They had been taught how to research and how to structure an oral presentation, they had been taught how to debate and they had learnt about their topic/ moot.  This was acquisition and understanding of knowledge. To present their knowledge, to use their knowledge they had to utilise so called ‘soft skills’ like communication, collaboration, social awareness, etc. The two worlds were interconnected and both gave the learner power and confidence.

A slightly more complex example took place once I had returned to my desk. I had been forwarded a video of one of our Year 9 learners who had participated in the regional Manu Korero competition. I watched the video of a 13 year old present his speech on how concerned he was that Te Ao Maori [the Maori world], his world, was shrinking. He was fluent and passionate. He was measured in his presentation, aware of how to use appropriate gesture and moment without being theatrical. He was powerful and empowered. The skills were obvious and listed above, but the knowledge here was his knowledge, he was bringing in his prior knowledge. This was not something he had been taught but was as important as any facts and figures. This leads to me to question what knowledge actually is. Just as the skills we are developing in out young people can sometimes be hard to define so it the nature of what constitutes knowledge.

Later that day I had also been sent links to two Year 10 speeches, a television ad made by a learner and an art portfolio from a Year 9 learner. All of these displayed knowledge in a variety of forms. Knowledge that was gained from  a teacher or source, knowledge  about litter and pollution, about the teenage brain and anxiety about drawing techniques and about film production but they also all contained skill development regarding communication, environmental awareness , cross cultural understanding and a host of others. They were a natural and happy mix of skills and knowledge.

Put together they empowered these young people to express themselves with confidence in a way that benefited others. Surely this is the purpose of knowledge, to make a difference and to understand how to make a difference.

I assume none of us became teachers just to get students to pass tests. Surely we became teachers to make a difference, to help young people to develop into empowered individuals who are strong, who matter and who can build our future. Knowledge without skills is just a series of facts to pass a test with, knowledge with skills is power.

How we empower, how we influence, how we develop our students, that is our real vocation and our real responsibility.

As Dame Whina Cooper said;

“Take care of our children, take care of what they hear, take care

of what they see, take care of what they feel. For how the

children grow, so will the shape of Aotearoa.”

I read recently that at its worst secondary school education requires students to give back to the teacher the information they had been told by that teacher in a similar but not identical manner to how they had been presented it by the teacher. Not identical as that would be cheating but not too different as that would be wrong. At its worst this is how knowledge is imparted, an ‘expert’ presents it and then wants it given back in the form of an assessment in a very similar manner. The student has then learnt and regurgitated. The teacher feels thy have been listened to and understood, the student gets a pass grade, everyone is happy!

This is a cynical definition but not a totally incorrect one. In this world skill development like creativity and curiosity is indeed compromised but so is the young, questioning mind, how can this be a good thing?  Assessment is vital, but assessment for learning not just of learning.  The following quote clarifies this. It was given to a a class of medical students.


The purpose of studying to become a doctor is not just about gaining knowledge but gaining the knowledge alongside developing the skills that will enable the use of that knowledge to improve the world we live in.

I feel that I am stating the obvious here but elements of the recent debate have made me question if this interconnection is obvious, understood, or appreciated.

Just in case anyone thinks this is just the deranged ranting of an innovative educator who lives in a flexible learning environment and is therefore anti knowledge, I thought I would include a random selection of quotes from deep thinking educators from the past because they seem to be on the same track.


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So the idea of education being so much more than mere knowledge[ important as it is] is certainly not a new one. When it comes down to it though the reason why the attempt to divide an educational debate into the relative values of knowledge and/or development of transferable skills annoys me because we don’t just teach knowledge and we don’t just develop skills, we work with young adults to help them develop the skills and knowledge that will empower them to make a better world. There is no division, no hierarchy just the privilege of being able to work in a profession where, on a good day, we make a difference.


2 thoughts on “The Disturbing Debate.

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