Much has been written in the press these last few weeks about the state of Scottish state education. This has mostly been based upon either the Curriculum for Excellence or the recent PISA results which show that Scotland has slumped in the tables and which even John Swinney admitted made for uncomfortable reading. Swinney’s view is that radical reform is needed. Scottish Educational academics admit that though the Curriculum for Excellence isn’t a lost cause, the clock is certainly ticking.
The debate has also been re-ignited in recent weeks about whether we should follow a knowledge based or a skills based curriculum and what is the best way to teach our children in schools. Some believe that they should receive a knowledge based education whilst others feel that a skills based curriculum is better.
Skills based learning (which is the approach encouraged by the Curriculum for Excellence) centres around developing and applying specific skills that can then be used to obtain the required knowledge. The classroom environment will encourage independence, as well as combining active-learning and collaboration to help the children retain the knowledge. This process allows the pupils to ‘access, process and then express’ the knowledge they have learnt rather than simply writing it down.
Knowledge based learning, on the other hand, aims to build upon the knowledge that the pupil already has. There are clear learning objectives set out which link to the activity undertaken, helping the child to see how their existing knowledge will help them to complete the task. Clear guidelines will be set at the beginning of the task which help the learner to see a clear path to the finish. Along the way they can apply the knowledge they already have, whilst also learning new things. This linear structure helps the pupil to see how they are progressing and can help to highlight where, if any, the gaps are in their knowledge. That is why learning your times tables by heart is useful. Imagine you are given the following problem: “2 x 2 + 2 x 3 + 6 x 8=y”. The problem is hardest if you do not know what x, +, and = mean, and the order of mathematical operations. This is knowledge. But the problem is also harder if you have to work out in your head, from scratch, what 2 x 2 is and what 6 x 8 is. If you know your times table, you will automatically see that this problem is “4 + 6 + 48”. It is much quicker and easier to work out the answer – you probably don’t even need to write anything down.
Arguably, an education which combines the two is the most effective and best way for our children to learn. Of course, here at Craigclowan that is exactly what we have been doing all along. We largely follow the Curriculum for Excellence in Forms 1 – 5 (though with a fair amount of knowledge based learning added in) and then, in Forms 6, 7 and 8, we follow the Common Entrance Curriculum which is a knowledge based curriculum. And though we have not taken part in any PISA testing, we do know from our regular standardised testing that our pupils perform way above the expected national average and this despite the fact that we are entirely none selective on entry. One of the huge advantages of being independent is that we do not have to wait for radical reform once every 15 years but can plough our own furrow and do what we know works.
John F Gilmour