Stand back! You’re about to be expertised.

It feels as if the last few years in teaching circles have seen a resurgence of debate about the primacy of knowledge – particularly that of the declarative kind. There has been a proliferation in the publication of books and blogs debunking the once prevalent application of Bloom’s taxonomy as a means to skim and skip past knowledge (of which, this is one of my favourites). We have ‘knowledge organisers’; knowledge based curricula and knowledge rich schools. Much of this stems from the work of E.D. Hirsch and its influence on current government policy. “Knowledge is power.”

Two possible futures are playing on my mind currently which, if we overly-fetishise declarative knowledge, we could end up making a reality.

Chunk says, “Chunk it.”

The first is that we may end up with some students who know some or even lots of pieces of knowledge without effectively developing an overall schema, making useful links between the isolated pieces of information they have learnt.

Just like many other schools, we have been producing knowledge organisers. I’ve written about this process here. We’ve been creating them for Year 7 and 8 first and have (again like many other schools) focused on using various self-quizzing strategies, including look/cover/write/check and flash cards during the first proper year of their usage. To a certain extent, I still think this sensible. Taking on too much can prevent things ever becoming embedded.

However, my current concern is that the way we’ve led students towards this still encourages them to learn particles of knowledge in isolation. I’m moving towards favouring a model of either designing or using knowledge organisers which look more like Kris Boulton’s suggestions here. This would, I suspect, trigger students to generate stronger links between the declarative knowledge on the organisers than learning the knowledge in discrete pieces. Unless schools move beyond quizzing the particles, fewer students will generate the chunks. This requires very careful consideration at curriculum level of the relationships between elements of declarative knowledge in our own school’s curriculum as well as clear thinking about how we can draw on elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and graphic organisers. It doesn’t bode well for schools who are lifting knowledge organisers from other schools and unthinkingly using them as teaching tools. The likelihood is that these schools will believe knowledge organisers don’t work in a couple of year’s time, because they didn’t consider the implementation carefully enough.

This vehicle is reversing expertise.

My second concern stems from some reading around what cognitive scientists call the expertise reversal effect. It is that, in making declarative knowledge the main thing, schools could hold some students back.

In their book, Efficiency in Learning: Evidence Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, Sweller et al maintain that “Many of the instructional methods that are effective for novices either have no effect or in some cases, depress the learning of learners with more expertise.”

They then propose these differences:

Numbers 27 and 28 are really important here as they highlight the risks faced if teachers spend too long on recall or quizzing in lessons where they are teaching students with relatively high levels of expertise in the content being covered. As students increase their expertise in a specific domain, so the level of guidance required from a teacher in that aspect of the domain needs to be reduced. This doesn’t mean open-ended, project based learning. Instead, it requires carefully designed opportunities for students to apply their declarative knowledge of the domain, developing procedural knowledge in increasingly challenging circumstances to consolidate what they know.

As David Didau points out in this post, it will take carefully designed assessments to ensure we go neither too fast nor too slow.

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