Debating false dichotomies: a new front in the education wars

Sometimes, it seems everyone who ever went to school is an expert on education and has a plan to make it better. Actual teaching experience, years of professional learning and formal training are all easily swept aside. The result is an ongoing dialog around what schools should do, what teachers need to do more of or less of and how the academic success of the nation is linked to strategy x or y. In search of an easy sell, our illustrious media machine is more than happy to run with whatever story seems to fit the current mood of their readership. The one criteria is a catchy headline and an easy scapegoat. A quick sound bite from an ‘expert’, a brief extract from the latest report by whichever industry group has most recently discovered education and you’re done. No need to actually visit a classroom, talk to a teacher or confuse your readers with the subtle complexity that surrounds every issue within education.  

In the eyes of the media any issue can be depicted as a battle between two competing points of view. Little seems to have changed in media land since the invention of the good versus evil plot line. In any field that strives to meet the needs of real people and real communities such a simplistic view will always fall well short of capturing the truth. In education, the false dichotomies created by the media and perpetuated by those who are unwilling or unable to take a deeper look, do nothing but harm. 

The Sydney Morning Herald has contained numerous examples of articles which present education as a contested field where sides are taken and lines are drawn. The most recent version carries the headline 'Hard facts v soft skills: a new front in the education wars’. Sorry, but the last time I was in a school there was no war going on. Indeed, even when you fill a room full of teachers from diverse backgrounds, nationalities and contexts, there is now ‘war’.  

The article depicts and dramatises a debate that does occur in education. Should teachers focus on skills and dispositions or should they focus on knowledge? There is a tension here that articles such as this perpetuate through fear mongering and oversimplification. There are those who believe that there is a trend away from teaching students knowledge, a shift away from content based curriculums. There are also those who believe that there is a trend away from teaching skills and dispositions such as creativity, critical thinking and communication. That this debate exists at all and that it has been allowed to continue does nothing to help our students.  

The supposed war between hard facts and soft skills is a dramatic oversimplification of a conversation that needs to occur in schools, with educational leaders, between curriculum writers and with politicians. Approached with an appreciation of the possibility of a response that lies neither at the poles of this supposed debate nor neatly in the middle allows for a conversation that has genuine merit. A conversation that reflects more closely how teachers have dealt with this tension and in doing so serve the needs of their learners. 

Our students require now, as perhaps they have for a long time, skills and dispositions which will allow them to find and solve problems, deal with complexity and ambiguity and communicate their ideas with clarity. Knowledge may not have the value and power that it once did in times before Google, but being devoid of knowledge is a state of being no-one would argue for. Skills or knowledge alone have little real world value. Intelligence is being able to use what you know in new ways and to solve new problems.  

The framing of the headline of this article is likely to result in a string of arguments on the side; distractions which only confuse the matter and give credence to the imagined ‘war'. There are those who see the term ‘soft skills’ as a devaluing of what are otherwise described as essential skills, capabilities or capacities required for success. They are skills which are complex and take great effort to master. The term ‘hard knowledge’ implies some level of fundamental truth in the knowledge or an essential value in the particular knowledges involved. There is almost an implication that there is an agreed to body of knowledge that all people should possess despite the very obvious fact that we can only ever hope to encounter a tiny fraction of all that might be worth knowing to us as individuals let alone all that is known. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, we will always have more unknown unknowns than known knowns.  

The supposed debate dissolves when we understand that it is not only preferable to teach knowledge and skills/dispositions together but that it is an entirely achievable goal. When we use content as a vehicle for developing skills and dispositions we provide our students with opportunities to understand that content in ways not possible through rote memorisation. When we engage our students in critical and creative thinking with and about the knowledge we value we allow them to develop their dispositions while expanding their knowledge banks. By giving purpose and context to the knowledge we teach, when we expect our students to be able to use the knowledge they have in meaningful ways and we assess not just what they can remember but what they can do with it with we provide students with the rich and subtly nuanced education they deserve.  

What education needs is a new narrative. One with complex characters and subtle plot lines. A mature narrative written for an audience that understand that the hero can have a dark side and that the truth is always more than just a little bit messy. We need the media to try a little harder, to dig a little deeper and present a view of education more rooted in the truth of what happens in schools and reveals the many ways educators are meeting the needs of their students. As educators, we have a responsibility to let our voice be heard, to speak truth to power and advocate for a profession that is valued for its expertise in the field most important for our future.   

By Nigel Coutts