Against “Downton Abbey”-Style Education

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Wonderful, important post on the importance of factual knowledge by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Bonus: he works in a mention of Downton Abbey.

“Michael Gove, secretary of education in Great Britain, certainly has a flair for oratory. In his most recent speech, he accused his political opponents of favoring ‘Downton Abbey-style’ education (meaning one that perpetuates class differences).

Predictably, press coverage in Britain has focused on [this comment, though it distracts] from the real aim. The fulcrum of the speech is the argument that a knowledge-based curriculum is essential to bring greater educational opportunity to disadvantaged children.

The logic is simple:

1) Knowledge is crucial to support cognitive processes.

2) Children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances have fewer opportunities to learn important background knowledge at home and they come to school with less knowledge, which has an impact on their ability to learn new information at school, and likely leads to a negative feedback cycle whereby they fall farther and farther behind.

Gove is right.  And he’s right to argue for a knowledge-based curriculum. [Such a] curriculum is most likely to meliorate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students because a good fraction of that difference is fueled by differences in cultural capital in the home–differences that schools must try to make up. (Indeed, a knowledge-based curriculum is a critical component of KIPP and other ‘no excuses’ schools in the US.)

I’m not writing to defend all education policies undertaken by the current British government–I’m not knowledgeable enough about those policies to defend or attack them.

But I find the response from Stephen Twigg (Labour’s shadow education secretary) disquieting, because he seems to have missed Gove’s point.

‘Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, headteachers and parents who think his plans are backward looking and narrow. We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past.’ (As quoted in the Financial Times.)

It’s easy to scoff at a knowledge-based curriculum as backward-looking. Memorization of math facts when we have calculators? Knowledge in the age of Google?

But if you mistake advocacy for a knowledge-based curriculum as wistful nostalgia for a better time, or as ‘old fashioned’ you just don’t get it.

Surprising though it may seem, you can’t just Google everything. You actually need to have knowledge in your head to think well. So a knowledge-based curriculum is the best way to get young people ‘ready for the world of work.’” (Read more here.)

I’d only add that the attitude exhibited by Stephen Twigg is common in this country, too—evident in all the boosting of “21st-century skills” and the denigration of “mere content.”

That content is knowledge, and knowledge is power! Make sure it’s in your kids’ heads and not just in their computers. 

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2 Responses to “Against “Downton Abbey”-Style Education”

  1. It’s not an either/or argument, is it? Why such polarization? A curriculum focused exclusively on knowledge without an emphasis on its uses for the learner seems pretty sterile. But a curriculum that promotes skills without a context for their use rings hollow too.

    These gentlemen’s humors are out of whack. They all need a good bloodletting! Certainly, Lord Grantham would agree.

  2. John says:

    A person needs to be grounded in, at least, a fundamental knowledge base. Access to information and the tools to define and refine a query are tools to enhance knowledge. If approached with little or no context, a person is just as likely to consider “The Onion” to be as reliable a news source as they might “The New York Times”. Everything has to be approached with some static, absolute knowledge before it is useful. There are a lot of variables in the wild world of information, and internet search tools are not a substitute for basic education. I agree with Mr. Gove, children need to be provided with a formal education before they start listening to business leaders, entrepreneurs and the unprecedented flash mob that is social media.

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