Last weekend educators gathered at Auckland Grammar’s Centennial theatre for ResearchED “a fantastic day featuring some of New Zealand’s most interesting and important voices in education, with guests from abroad. ResearchED days are committed to burying edu-myths, raising evidence literacy in the teaching profession and beyond, and creating powerful conversations between anyone affected by the evidence eco-system” according to their website. The keynote speaker was Katherine Moana Birbalsingh. Ms Birbalsingh talked about how her educational philosophies are changing the lives of the students currently attending Michaela Community School, a charter school she founded in a poor neighbourhoodin inner-city London four years ago.

According to Birbalsingh, knowledge in the form of content is important and skills are not and if New Zealand continues on the path of inquiry and discovery learning we will fall off the edge of a cliff. She is disparaging of the concept of the teacher being a “facilitator of learning”. To her, the teacher is there to deliver direct instruction in front of the class. We should be teaching subjects like English, Maths, Science, and History, not learning areas and key competencies which are at the core of the New Zealand Curriculum. She is also critical of educational technology. Summative end of year written examinations is good. Modern learning environments are bad. Quite simple really.

Judging from the number of people present, there appears to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the current model of education in New Zealand. Certainly, her ideas sat in stark contrast with those raised in the recent Education Summits led by the Ministry of Education.

In saying this, it is enjoyable to find an educator passionate about making a difference in the lives of her students. I agree with some of the contentions she has made. I agree that teaching facts is vital, that as our factual knowledge increases we gain expertise, that skills are useless without facts, that learning at the bottom of SOLO taxonomy is at least as important as learning at the top and that much skills learning is done badly. But none of these proves that skills do not exist, or that you can’t teach skills effectively.

The key claim that Birbalsingh makes is one of the paramount importance of content over skills and that this was according to her, backed up by the research. This claim is both very wrong and very easily disproved. This view is also dangerous as it will lead teachers into bad practice.

I contend we need to teach both. In fact, it is a misnomer to say that skill is not knowledge. Skill is knowledge, just of a different form. The fact-based knowledge that Birbalsingh champions are based on declarative memory (knowing that) whereas the skills she decries are procedural memory (knowing how) both forms of knowledge. Evolution seems to think we need both forms too: we have a special place in the brain to store facts (declarative memory), and another place to store skills, (procedural memory).

According to Anderson (1990), teachers should be aware that there are different kinds of memory, and that these associate with each other through the limited working memory to allowing processing of information under an adaptive control of thought – rational (ACT-R) to produce understanding. Overloading the working memory with too much information at once will not be conducive to learning. At the same time, encouraging students to combine their knowledge with actions can have the effect of reinforcing learning in both procedural and declarative memory. A combination of thinking and doing can be a powerful mix of activity to deepen learning.

So let us examine the claim that teaching skills will lead the calamity as claimed. Does this hold up to the research? It might seem surprising at first that learning a skill would improve understanding of facts, but if students have to think hard about the facts they’ve been taught, which is the skill of critical thinking, I contend that they will learn these facts better and the research backs this up.

The research provided by Birbalsingh tends to rely heavily on cognitive psychology which was largely based on laboratory research. But one has to question whether this is the best source of information on which teaching methods work best, and which don’t. The most authoritative source of information on this surely must be systematic research based on experiments in real classrooms with real students and real teachers.

The work of Abrami (2008) on critical thinking finds that done the right way, you can get a very high students outcomes. The key is to teach study skills in context (with those dreaded facts) using a relational approach. This involves the integration of the teaching of study skills into the subject teaching usingsubject-specific tasks. As an illustration, a handsome and debonair chemistry teacher teaches how to answer a question on chemical bonding, by setting the task of answering a previous examination question. The chemistry teacher breaks down the skill of reading the question for keywords, and explains how to research, plan and write a response, gives students time to practice these skills in class, and ensures students get feedback on how well they have done on employing the skills taught.

The key point is that skills are best learned in combination with content. The is reinforced by the work of cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham.

“The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practising (the skill of) critical thinking”

So using the example of the skill of critical thinking, what does this look like in the classroom? Abrami et al (2008) found in his meta-analysis that if teachers teach critical thinking skills explicitly throughout the year, and students are then set tasks that involve the application of these skills to what is being taught, then students learn the skills well. It also helps if students collaborate in groups or pairs, and are given clear objectives for thinking critically.

So in order to teach students to think about facts, we ask them questions that go well beyond simple recall. So teachers must ask students to take the facts they have explained and then analyze, problem-solve, and evaluate. The students are using skills.

If we don’t teach students skills such as how to write long answer responses, reading for understanding, testing your own recall before a test, revision techniques, looking for keywords etc., then students will be left to learn them unguided. This is the technique of discovery learning which is an anathema of Birbalsingh!

So in conclusion, my major disagreement with Birbalsingh is on how should we teach the facts that we both so greatly approve of. She is a strong advocate of ‘Direct Instruction’. This would make sense as the evidence for it is overwhelming as she affirms.

However there is a caveat, there is a concern that some teachers will interpret direct instruction to mean that they should stand at the front and spout facts. As I have outlined this clearly is not the best strategy. As Dan Willingham says

‘Whatever you think about that is what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought’.

We need to teach facts and skills, or only the most privileged will learn, ironically what Birbalsingh fears. However, rather than teaching skills the way Birbalsingh describes and criticises, I advocate teaching skills the way the evidence points – embedding the teaching of skills into the teaching of knowledge. Then the learning of both skills and knowledge benefits.

Tne problem Birbalsingh’s argument faces is she is effectively saying that we can’t teach students to read for understanding by underlining key points in a text and then summarising in a mind map or that we can’t teach students to practice their recall of important facts or that if you teach this, it doesn’t work (yet as the video below shows, she advocates recantation of timetables at 4:38). Finally, although she is a critic of discovery learning, by following the method she espouses, she condemns students to learning skills by this method.

What I think what is happening is that Birbalsingh is using her keynote to fight an ideological war. She takes a ‘traditional’ view of education and attacks the ‘progressive’ view. She is right to criticise many approaches advocated by the ‘progressive’ movement, including the attempt to teach skills without content, or that learning of facts has no place in the digital age, the evidence is dead against this.  However, this is not what is happening in schools around the country.

As a bit of a Star Wars nerd, I think we need to look at the Je’daii Order that was an ancient organization unified by its belief and observance of the force based on Tython. Focusing on maintaining a balance in the Force, the Je’daii saw the Force as three aspects of a whole; the Ashla (light), the Bogan (Dark), and the Bendu (balance). They saw this duality in the Force represented in the night sky of Tython in the form of two natural satellites; one bathed in light, the Ashla, another shrouded in darkness, the Bogan. In keeping with their view of balance, Je’daii who fell too far to either the light or dark were exiled to the opposite moon to meditate until they returned to balance.

We should be looking as educators look for a balance between skills and content. If we veer too far from either we should reflect on research from the other perspective and challenge our practice through the evidence. Read into cognitive psychology, look at research into what teaching methods work best, and at research into what the best teachers do, see other practitioners in action. Where you find common ground, then give that approach a try, find for you what works and what does not. This is ‘corroboration’ or ‘triangulation’ – a critical thinking skill.

May the force be with you.


Abrami, P. C. (2008) “Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a Stage 1 meta-analysis.” Review of Educational Research 78: 1102 -1134.

Anderson, J. R. (1990) The adaptive character of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Petty, G. (2009) ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ 2nd Ed. Oxford: OUP

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