Hobbling around with the burden of easily forgotten information

Let us drop skills-only courses and return to an integrated knowledge-based syllabus, urges Penelope J. Corfield

September 25, 2008

There appears to be a growing revolt against the Government's apparent wish to cramp education into pure skills acquisition. Motions at the University and College Union conference earlier this year similarly rejected an instrumentalist approach to education for immediate job skills in favour of a much more productive and flexible education for life.

Assertions and resolutions, however, are not enough. Damage is already being done within the higher education system in a well-meant but pedagogically mistaken attempt to respond to government pressure. Thus skills-only courses are being introduced everywhere to show that we are on-message. The aim is to placate the auditors and funding councils by showing that all the right boxes can be ticked to show delivery.

Yet no proof has ever been supplied that this arrangement actually produces the required pedagogic outcome. In fact, it doesn't. Technical skills taught in isolation, outside a knowledge framework, are hard to absorb and quickly forgotten.

Who has not had the experience of being instructed in some new technique or methodology - for example, when acquiring a new machine or gadget? At the time, everything seems clear but, unless the information is underpinned by a deeper understanding and engrained by regular practice, memories of the instruction quickly fade, despite people's best intentions. Thus it often happens that, after a lapse of time, the teaching has to be done all over again.

Take the case of history, which is a subject that employs many craft skills. These are best learnt, as in a traditional apprenticeship, "on the job", when they become knowledge-based. Now, however, there is pressure everywhere to provide separate courses on historical skills. The result is a fragmented set of sessions that fail to hold the students' attention. One week it is "databases for historians"; next week, "the significance of oral history"; then "the techniques of prosopography" or "advice for historians in the archive" and so forth; all the way through to a culminating session on "ethical dilemmas for historians".

Each session is relevant and important in the right context - but the skills-only course is not embedded into a developing knowledge-based programme that will provide such a context.

Students become frustrated and bored. They are all required to sit through everything, whatever their prior expertise. Skills they have encountered in BA courses are described again in MA courses and then, if they continue further, in courses on skills for PhD students. There is no scope for flexible adjustment to individual requirements.

Students protest or simply absent themselves. They don't learn the things that they need to learn. The courses are put together by committee. It is often hard to find tutors who are willing to teach skills-only courses, with the result that the task is done by a rota of conscripts, thus adding further fragmentation to an already fragmented programme. An air of obedient weariness characteristically envelops these skills-only courses, instead of the enthusiasm and commitment that good teaching and learning require.

I was recently required, as part of a process of syllabus "reform", to divide a successful MA course in to the genesis of historical concepts and skills. Now there are two sundered half-units. The result is that the concepts half-unit is too heady and overwhelming, unleavened by the practical processes, and the skills half-unit is too bitty, despite the best efforts of the tutors.

Why has this been done? No students had requested it. But the substitution was apparently "required" by the Zeitgeist, as interpreted by university policymakers and course validators. As a result, the push to teach skills in separate courses is overriding the professional advice of the tutors who actually teach these desirable things.

Providing separate courses on knowledge and on skills is like providing separate courses on walking with the right leg and walking with the left leg. Both teaching experiences are devalued.

And the skills component is particularly damaged, leaving the students hobbling awkwardly with a mish-mash of "unlocated" and easily forgotten information - hence at some future date they will need instruction all over again.

So we should return to embedded skills. Certainly, such teaching needs to be done much more explicitly than was done in the old days. Learning embedded skills without being able to identify what they are is not good enough.

But such an explicit awareness is not hard to integrate into a knowledge-based syllabus, with a carefully graduated programme. In other words, we should drop skills-only courses that look good on the audit trail but don't work. And we should continually remind the world of the great educational truth that real skills depend upon real knowledge.

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