Dear Canterbury Community

Facts, knowledge and understanding
Here’s a question I’ve been pondering lately: in the age of Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, do we really need to know anything anymore?

If our students are able to ask their smartphone a question and a perfectly sensible answer is forthcoming, why do we persist in teaching and assessing their knowledge and understanding of particular concepts?

The simple answer is, that immediate, fact-based knowledge like “What is the capital of Norway?” may well be handled satisfactorily by our smart phones however, conceptual knowledge, deeper understanding and linkages across concepts still need to be embedded in our brains. Overall cognition (the action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) is not an immediate action. We cannot gain holistic and deep understanding of an issue by asking Siri a question on our phones.

And so the answer to my original question is emphatically – yes! Knowing things is actually more important than it ever was. Having a well-developed understanding of a complex topic in History, Mathematics and Science shields us from fake news and opinion-pieces that are passed off as factual.  I heard a Principal of another school say recently that she believed “schools should stop teaching content” to students and focus on inquiry and higher order thinking instead.

I could not disagree more with this sentiment.

A student cannot think deeply (analyse, synthesise, evaluate) about an issue that they know nothing about. They cannot properly inquire into a content area (for example, the fall of Ancient Rome, the process of photosynthesis, Shakespeare's Hamlet the process of factorizing a quadratic equation or understanding the endocrine system) if they do not have a well laid-out, well-sequenced, developmental understanding of that concept. Explicit teaching still matters. Knowledge still matters. Students having skills of working memory, retrieval, linkages between and across knowledge must still be the focus of all teachers. Higher order thinking of course is what we ultimately looking for, but this cannot happen in a vacuum. 

As Queensland students now sit a series of high stakes external examinations at the end of Year 12, our focus as a College, beginning from Prep, is to ensure we are focusing on these basics of cognition. Learning and unlearning content after the test is not what we are looking for. Rather, we are looking to plant seeds of understanding and then water and fertilise them constantly over 13 years of education. Year 12 students do not do well on their final exams because they had good strategies in Year 12. They succeed because their teachers made excellent choices about how to develop long term deep understanding in their subjects. 

My personal experience is that students appreciate walking out of a lesson learning something new. They love mastering something complex. They appreciate their teachers being subject experts and knowing the answers to all their questions, whether big or small.

We are refocusing our efforts in the next year on how we teach new material to students, how we get it activated deep into their brains and how to make linkages between the knowledge they hold. This will improve their exam results, but more importantly it will teach them how to study and how to draw on their knowledge in conversation and in real life in the future, to be more articulate and interesting people.

Mr Dan Walker