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News

10 April 2012

Eye On The World Issue 7

This is one of the articles from the IPC magazine Eye On The World, which IPC member schools receive twice each year.

Eye On The World includes advice and practical ideas to support learning and the delivery of the IPC and shares experiences and tips from schools around the world.

Other benefits for IPC member schools includes new and updated units online, access to the online IPC route planner for identification of learning goal coverage, discounts with resource suppliers and on courses and conferences, and much more.

Download Eye On The World Issues 1-7 for free

                             
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Thoughts from Martin Skelton

Martin Skelton

Knowledge, Skills and Understanding

As Managing Director of Fieldwork Education and Director of School Management Services for the World Class Learning Group, Martin Skelton spends many days visiting schools around the world helping them to improve learning. Here Martin offers his thoughts on knowledge, skills and understanding.

The IPC Self-Review and Accreditation protocol sets out the nine different elements that make the IPC what it is. It helps all of us to define whether we are at beginning, developing or mastering level in our implementation of the IPC. (If you haven’t looked at it yet, please do. It’s an essential document and one that the very best IPC schools use to guide their practice.)

 

Clarity

None of the nine elements are any more important than the others because all of them work together to make sure that children get the very best from their learning with the IPC. But over the past couple of years, it’s become clearer to me that clarity about the differences between knowledge, skills and understanding, and the implications of these differences is vital if children are to learn well.

The good news is that once we think about it, the differences aren’t that difficult to ‘get’. What does seem trickier, is to make sure that we do the right thing in schools to make sure that children learn well. Let’s take them one at a time.

 

Knowledge

                 
Sharing knowledge in an engaging way
Sharing knowledge in an engaging way: the children of St Columb Minor Academy in Newquay, England learn with the school gardener.
 

When we talk about ‘knowledge’ in the IPC we mean factual knowledge. ‘Paris is the capital of France’ and so on. We think that knowledge is important. It’s one of the most important building blocks of skills and understanding. The IPC does not think that children can look up all the knowledge they will need. We do think they need to know some things. But back to the learning. As far as the brain is concerned, all knowledge is the same. Essentially, it’s a number of facts that have to be remembered. So the trick for teachers is how to help children think that the knowledge is worth concentrating on in the first place and then how to get it remembered. This is time consuming but relatively straightforward.

Here are two things that many good teachers do to help children realise that knowledge is worth concentrating on:

  • Be interested in it themselves. (Why should children be interested if their teacher obviously isn’t?)
  • Wherever possible, make sure that the knowledge has some link to the children’s own interests.

Here are two things many good teachers do to help children remember the knowledge that matters.

     
  • Continually repeat it. (Things stick in the memory when we hear them a lot.)
  •  
  • Provide hooks. (We don’t do this enough even though we know it helps. Hooks help us retrieve information.)

Knowledge can be taught efficiently. If we think children should know things, tell them - in an interested way with hooks, but tell them. Knowledge can be assessed efficiently, too. By testing them, out loud or with a pencil and paper.

Essentially, knowledge learning is about being interested in and memorising what matters. Teaching knowledge is about telling. Assessing knowledge is about testing.

 

Skills

           
Children from Bishops Hull Primary School in Taunton, England apply several skills as part of the IPC Money and Trade unit
Children from Bishops Hull Primary School in Taunton, England apply several skills while collaboratively calculating profit as part of the IPC Money and Trade unit.

When we talk about ‘skills’ in the IPC we are talking about anything that someone is ‘able to do.’ This can be as ‘simple’ as ‘I’m able to say my 2x table’ or ‘I’m able to do up my shoe laces’ (not so simple, of course if you are two), or as difficult as ‘I’m able to
  deconstruct a philosophical argument’ or ‘I’m able to write a complex research proposal.’’

As far as the brain is concerned, the neuronal pathways that are laid down in skills learning have to happen in practice. (You can learn that Paris is the capital of France without being in Paris. You can’t learn how to write a poem without…writing a poem.) This is true of all skills.

Unlike knowledge, which is right or wrong, skills learning goes through a process of beginning, developing and mastering. You will know this if you have ever skied. You start on the green slopes, moving from beginning through developing to mastering. As you get to green mastering, you move to the blue slopes where you ‘begin’ again and so on. The brain is always upping the level at which it learns skills. Because of this, the brain requires much more time to learn skills; the practice involved in skills is much more time consuming than it is in knowledge. (We can’t ask children to ‘do’ a skill once and claim it is anything to do with ‘learning’. That’s why in the IPC Assessment for Learning (AfL) Programme the journey from Beginning through Developing to Mastering takes at least TWO years.)

This creates good news and bad news. The good news is that skills are where rigour is to be found. There’s nothing particularly rigorous about ‘Paris is the capital of…’ especially if we have good hooks to help us. But skills take time, move progressively through beginning, developing and mastering stages and encompass everything from the simple to the complex; learning skills is almost the definition of the word resilience; as you’ll know if you either gave up learning something or made it through. The bad news, if you are eight years old and a learner,is that skills are tough. All skills learners need lots of support.

So, good teachers:

     
  • Create lots of time for extended practice that allows real development to take place
  •  
  • Coach rather than tell. (When skills are being learned, teachers are alongside children helping them improve, not standing at the front.)
  •  
  • Provide huge amounts of personal support though the process to balance out the desire to give up getting better
  •  
  • Set targets with children; targets that are about getting better at each stage rather than about completion. (You’ll notice that the IPC talks about ‘mastering’ rather than ‘mastery.’)

One more thing. The way to assess skills learning is not to test but to observe. We need to observe to see at what stage a learner is at. That’s why the IPC AfL Programme contains descriptive paragraphs of behaviour. Assessing skills is very different from assessing knowledge.

 

Understanding

           
IPC Young and Old unit
Children at Piasau School in Miri, Malaysia develop some understanding of the restricted movements and senses of an elderly person during their learning with the IPC Young and Old unit.

Understanding deserves a whole issue of Eye on the World to itself. There is a fantastic paradox here. ‘Understanding’ is the most misunderstood word in learning and teaching. We’ll have to explore that another time.

When we talk about ‘understanding’ in the IPC it must mean something different than knowledge or skills. If it didn’t why we would have another word? For us, it means an insight into the big picture of something – ‘I am finally beginning to understand what power is all about when it comes to government’; ‘I am understanding more of what it is to be an artist’. If you asked someone to explain what they were talking about, their reply would be very different to a dictionary definition of understanding (which is ‘knowing’). Understanding is much deeper, more personal, and it changes with different circumstances. A good image of understanding might be a lava lamp. There is definitely something there – a bulb of floating green oil. But this bulb changes shape as the context changes and might even disappear for a time.

We often use the word understand when we actually mean ‘know’ or ‘able to’ But understanding is different to either of these. It depends on depth of experience and personal response, more than on being told or on practice. Which means, of course, that we are less likely to see it develop in primary children than we are knowledge or skills.

Good teachers who help children develop understanding:

     
  • Provide rich and varied learning experiences to feed the fire with lots of fuel
  •  
  • Provide a chance for children to develop the ability to reflect – this is the crucial skill that supports understanding
  •  
  • Provide some appropriate and focused questions to reflect on
  •  
  • Don’t expect a ‘correct’ answer
  •  
  • Value the individual responses of children and support their growing big thoughts

 

Why is all this important?

Because learning is important. Because we have to appreciate that different kinds of teaching and that different ways of learning help create each type of learning. And that different kinds of assessment and evaluation let us know that learning is happening.


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