Education systems worldwide are based on the idea that students get and remember information from teachers and books. These systems test this knowledge with standardized tests which compare students to each other. They only test the kind of information which is possible to measure in tests. The goal is gaining information, not developing skills by which to use and make information. Unlike the old style of education, where people remembered things in order to pass tests and get higher scores than other students, the modern world calls for a new kind of education in which the focus is deep understanding, creativity, and information management skills.
Most education systems in the world are designed to make students remember things. One reason is that schools feel the need to compare students. They do this by giving tests. They want to be able to give grades and decide which students are smart and which are not. They function as a sorting mechanism for society. From the earliest grades, students are put on tracks that will decide their futures. Another reason schools like to make students remember things is that by doing so, they will be able to test their knowledge and determine if they remember or not. They believe that if students remember things, it is the same as understanding those things. Schools also like to impart knowledge because in this way, although students can have different individual skills, they can all have the same knowledge.
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However, a growing body of people rejects this binary view, suggesting that placing skills and knowledge in opposition to one another creates a false dichotomy. Instead, as I would argue, skills and knowledge represent different sides of the same coin, with both essential to the education project. Aristotelian philosophy offers a starting point for bringing together knowledge and skills. Aristotle developed a tripartite division of knowledge, which included: epistêmê (universal, theoretical knowledge); technê (‘know-how’); and phronesis (‘practical wisdom’). The distinction Aristotle draws between content-based knowledge on the one hand (know what and know why) and practical, tacit and situated knowledge (what one could call craft knowledge or skills), on the other hand, suggests that rather than being in tension with each other, content knowledge and skills each hold a distinct yet interconnected role in the conceptualization of knowledge (and by extension learning).
The interconnected nature of knowledge and skills is further supported and explained in the cognitive psychology research on learning, what is commonly referred to as the science of learning. Cognitive psychological research has demonstrated that general abilities, competencies, and skills cannot be studied independently of content domains. For instance, while it is possible to teach general principles or approaches to problem-solving, the ability to utilize these in response to a specific problem requires relevant content knowledge. This is because when undertaking particular tasks – such as writing an essay or solving a complex problem. If we do not have sufficient domain-specific knowledge, simply understanding the problem or task can take up most of our working memory, leaving limited space for devising solutions. For this reason, we struggle to write an essay on a topic that we do not know well enough. At the same time, we may be familiar with the key components required in essay writing – an introduction, a clear argument, the use of paragraphs. Similarly, a meta-analysis of 40 studies on ways to improve scientific problem-solving skills demonstrated that the most successful interventions focused on strengthening student’s knowledge base, while interventions focused on problem-solving strategies had little or no impact.
While it is our knowledge-base that enables us to perform higher-order skills effectively, applying our knowledge (such as through problem-solving) also helps us consolidate our knowledge base. It is through actively utilizing a new piece of information that we are able to move beyond merely comprehending that information and committing it to our long-term memory so that it is retained over time to learning – that is, using the newly gained information to do something. Knowledge is created and transformed through action. This suggests that we need to be developing in our students both a strong knowledge base and the skills to be able to apply this knowledge to address complex challenges and innovate. It is critical that New Zealand moves beyond a binary debate of knowledge versus skills and instead recognizes that both are essential to our education system. A person’s knowledge base determines both what and how easily they are able to learn and their ability to demonstrate particular skills and higher-order learning. Understood in this light, knowledge is directly related to discussions of equity in education. So while increasing knowledge is not a silver bullet, it does represent an important component in building a more equitable education system.
Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world” (Needle, 2017). All the knowledge in the world is useless unless you are able to use information in creative ways. Knowledge is what other people have created. Understanding is all about what you think about something. Everybody sees, hears, feels, and thinks differently. No two people in the world have the same understanding of the same thing. It is impossible to give tests from a point of view. Because of this, tests are illogical. The only reason tests exist is to label students as smart or stupid. There are many kinds of intelligence, however. One of the most famous researchers in the field of intelligence, Gardner, found at least seven different kinds of intelligence (Gardner, 1999). Intelligence and understanding are related.
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Unfortunately, tests only measure one type of intelligence. In the modern world, skills are more important than knowledge. If a person knows many facts, it is impressive but not very useful. It is of much greater importance to be able to find information quickly, organize that information, analyze and understand the main ideas, but different pieces of information together (synthesize), and create new information. Together, these skills make what we call information management and innovation the most desired skills in the business world. Most people believe that education is about remembering things to take tests that measure one’s performance against other people who have studied the same information. However, this idea no longer matches the reality of the modern world in which knowledge is less important than creativity and deep understanding. To be successful in the age of technology, education must focus on helping students gain information management and innovation skills.