When is a skill not a skill?

rogertitcombe's picture
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Answer: when it’s a general cognitive ability.

In the behaviourist ideology of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that is increasingly dominating the English school system through the expansion of Academies and Free Schools, the validity of general cognitive ability (intelligence) is denied. What is taught to school pupils is considered to be ‘facts’ and ‘skills’. The assumption is that there is nothing that cannot be learned through the behaviourist methods of instruction and remembering facilitated by disciplined silent listening, lots of practise with similar examples and regular testing, all incentivised through formal regimes of rewards and punishments.

The increasing domination of this ideology can be seen from this recent report in ‘i News’

“Just 3 per cent of teenagers believe problem solving skills and creativity are essential attributes to have on their CVs, according to an in-depth survey into young people’s views of work. Only a fraction more, 4 per cent, believe leadership and social skills are vital for the workplace, while 5 per cent chose self-confidence and the ability to work in a team. The study comes just weeks after the CBI published its annual education and skills report, which revealed that 40 per cent of businesses are not satisfied by the level of problem solving skills among school leavers.”

The ‘i News’ article is illustrated by a picture of a Rubik Cube, implying that solving this classic 3D puzzle is a ‘problem solving skill’. It certainly is a skill, but is it ‘problem solving’ in any general sense? I know it is a skill because my grandson can do it within a minute. There are a number of algorithms (instructions in sequential steps) for achieving this and you can find them from Google. But this is not a general problem solving ability in the sense lamented by the CBI as lacking in our school leavers. A problem solving ability is a characteristic of general intelligence. Unlike solving a Rubik Cube, for which the skill is specific to Rubik Cubes, the cognitive level needed to solve a novel problem is transferable to all problems.

Someone with such an ability will have a high IQ and someone lacking it will have a lower one. What the CBI is really lamenting is that our school system is failing to raise the general intelligence of our school leavers. The truth is worse than that: such general intelligence is in fact in decline – The ‘Anti-Flynn effect’.

The cause of this cognitive decline is the spread of GERM ideology throughout the English education system.

The vector for this contagion is marketisation through the promotion of Academy and Free Schools.

The indicator of the presence of the contagion is denial that conceptualisation is a key feature of deep learning and its replacement by ‘skills training’ on a ‘vocational training’ model.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has shown that the GERM methods are ineffective and that approaches based on the conscious development of personal concepts (metacognition) and their sharing with peers as well as with the teacher are highly effective. 

The difference between concept-based developmental learning and the instruction-based GERM methods are stark. Classrooms where effective developmental learning is taking place will be characterised by lots of enthusiasm and talk. See this example of such an approach that is readily transferable to school-based learning.  See also this description of science teaching that shows how the development of understanding needs much more than the rote learning of facts imparted by the teacher.

The cover illustration of my book, ‘Learning Matters’ shows pupils sitting in rows silently listening to their teacher, who is standing in front of the class. One pupil is passing a note to another, “Do you get it coz I don’t ?”.

‘Getting it’ is the objective of deep, developmental learning and is best achieved as a social process where ‘not getting it’ can be freely disclosed and the barriers to understanding discussed between peers as well as with the teacher.

‘Getting it’, is also a phrase that is applied to the appreciation of jokes. All parents will know that very young children often ‘do not get’ the jokes they still delight in having remembered. I strongly suspect a Piagetian developmental explanation for this. Could it be that children need to have to have developed their cognition from the ‘pre-operational’ to the ‘concrete operational’ stage before they ‘get’ jokes?

I don’t think this is trivial. Can young children be trained to ‘get’ jokes? Is ‘getting’ jokes a skill or a cognitive developmental issue? I am sure it is the latter. I will conclude with this profound quote from Vygotsky.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

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