Education as Growing Skills vs Accumulating Knowledge

Occasionally I do interviews on podcasts etc to help promote my writing, and a question that’s often asked is what advice I would give would-be authors. I approach this question as what advice would I give myself if I could go back in time ten years or more. And this is what I’d tell my younger self: you can’t learn to swim without getting in the pool.

It’s great to study the masters and read up on literary conventions and storytelling techniques, but ultimately there’s no substitute for finishing a story idea that you’ve started, all the way through. Get it done, polish it up, get some feedback, and move on. This is the skill of writing, of storytelling, and the only way to get better at it is to do it repeatedly. Yes, it’s important to supplement this skill with study, but your top priority needs to be practicing that skill, getting your reps in.

This is the difference between developing a skill and accumulating knowledge. The former is an active process whereas the latter is passive. (Yes, I realize this is a simplistic dichotomy but it’s fine for our purposes here.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and how it applies to our education system. I haven’t studied advanced education theories or policies, etc, so this all anecdotal, but in my experience, growing up, school was by and large focused on accumulating knowledge. The school board designs a curriculum, the teacher delivers it, and the students are tested by regurgitating what they’ve consumed. It’s simple, measurable, and shitty.

For the most part, though, I was fine with it. I’m a big nerd, so I have no problem sitting down and reading about history and Shakespeare. But I can definitely see the cracks. For one thing, not everyone is like me–in fact I’d say most people aren’t. They aren’t interested in learning a buncha shit that has nothing immediately relevant to their lives.

For example, I grew up doing French immersion from kindergarten to grade twelve. Most of what we did was sit down and conjugate verbs over and over, and we’d be tested on our grammar. What gender is this noun? Does this verb use avoir or etre for past tense? Where is the subject, direct object, and indirect object of this sentence? Then, one year, we all went to Quebec for a couple weeks on a school trip and none of us could carry on a sensible conversation with a local. It was pathetic. We had the knowledge but no skill.

Nowadays, there’s an either/or between the humanities and STEM, which I think comes down to the impression that the former is about knowledge, which is about passively consuming knowledge, whereas STEM is about skills and has real-world application. I think this is a tragic mischaracterization. What would history as a skill look like? The ability to seek out and identify reputable sources of information. Knowing what are good sources of knowledge and how to deploy them. What would English as a skill look like? The ability to think and communicate clearly and critically. In our current age of misinformation, I can’t think of more valuable skills.

Hell, even my sciences courses were fixated on knowledge accumulation. Not much about developing hypotheses and testing them. Just memorize the periodic table of elements enough to pass the mid-term. English was more about literature appreciation (great way to engage teens!) as opposed to learning the nuts and bolts of essay structure. Jesus Christ, if you’re not gonna learn what a topic sentence or a thesis statement is in English class, where will you?

The problem is these skills are hard to teach from an institutional point of view. Or maybe they’re aren’t difficult, but our current model of fixating on test results and measurable outcomes doesn’t seem to make room for that. From what I remember, and I don’t think it’s changed much in the last seventeen years since I graduated high school (*sobs*), teachers had to drag their students kicking and screaming through a pool of curriculum that was as vast as an ocean but as shallow as a kiddie pool.

What would a skill-based education system look like? Moreover, let’s expand the notion of skill beyond STEM and the trades. What does skill in the humanities look like? I guess the conclusion of my soapbox rant here is that we shouldn’t be afraid to drill narrowly and deeply. Instead of inundated students with curriculum, go for quality over quantity. Let them dig their teeth in and see what they produce.



~ by braddunne on September 28, 2021.

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