This is what I was thinking by about paragraph 11 (and confirmed by paragraph 15) of Stephen Downes' longish essay on 21st Century Learning.
It is especially disappointing because I've been hoping that someone would advance the argument because it appears that both sides are talking past each other. And, as long as we're talking past each other, the issue doesn't advance. The issue needs to advance because it is an important issue.
Stephen's essay clearly demonstrates where the issue has stagnated.
In paragraphs 1-15 he erects and then dismantles the "students need to learn facts" strawman and assures us that everyone agrees that they do:
Not only do I make these statements, I would say that any person who is an advocate of 21st century learning also makes these statements. I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century skills by saying 'we need facts'. Everybody has already agreed with that.
Then he takes the carcass of that dismantled strawman and proceeds to erect another strawman, the "students need to learn skills" strawman, and naturally assures us that they do:
We know now - and, indeed, have probably always known - that an education based strictly and solely in facts is insufficient.
He then takes the remainder of the essay, the bulk of it, to dismantle this newly erected strawman. He could have just written a few points why skills are important and then cut and pasted a slighted altered version of the paragraph he used in dismantling the "students need to learn facts" strawman:
I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century [facts] by saying 'we need [skills]'. Everybody has already agreed with that.
If anything, it would have saved him the typing of a few thousand words.
Why don't we move the argument to a more productive place. Both sides apparently agree that students need to learn both facts and skills and what they currently are learning is insufficient. The question is which facts, which skills, and how should they be best taught to maximize the knowledge that students need to be both productive and informed and to enable them to continue their learning throughout their life after formal education has been completed.
I'm still trying to work out these issues for myself and hopefully I'll be able to present a coherent essay on the issue in the near future. In the meantime, I am able to point out some of the flawed assumptions that Stephen makes in his essay in the hope that he can get himself back on track and thinking about the same issue from his very different perspective.
First, it isn't impossible to teach people facts. Quite the opposite is the case - we understand, and can prove (and have proved, over and over) that we can teach facts very simply and easily, through repetition, rote, memorization, practice examples, worked examples, and more. People can memorize the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the Koran, whatever. A great deal of our education today in fact turns on this very proposition: it consists of the teaching of facts, and the testing for recall of those facts.
The testing also shows that students are not able to recall those facts very well, despite this supposedly being the primary focus of present education and that facts are supposedly simply and easily taught.
Both sides apparently believe that at least some facts need to be learned and should be able to be readily recalled by students. Both sides also apparently believe that students need more than mere recall of facts. It follows that both sides should be concerned that students aren't able to recall facts if only for the fact that if they can't recall facts, it's unlikely they can do any "higher-order" things with those facts. Yet only one side is concerned over the current state of affairs. The other side is either being disingenuous with its call for the learning of facts or is playing fast and loose with the definition, as you'll soon see. In any event, their stance needs clarification.
When you teach children facts as facts, and when you do it through a process of study and drill, it doesn't occur to children to question whether or not those facts are true, or appropriate, or moral, or legal, or anything else. Rote learning is a short circuit into the brain. It's direct programming. People who study, and learn, that 2+2=4, know that 2+2=4, not because they understand the theory of mathematics, not because they have read Hilbert and understand formalism, or can refute Brouwer and reject intuitionism, but because they know (full stop) 2+2=4.
Again, both sides apparently agree that children should learn facts and to question/analyze facts and the evidence presented that establishes these facts. The implication that direct instruction is an inferior way of learning anything but facts has no empirical support. It's also wrong to imply that direction instruction is synonymous with rote learning and conversely that non-direct instruction isn't rote or is somehow "better."
We want people to know both the theory of mathematics and that 2+2=4. The two are separate things. And, I am especially suspicious when an educator claims to be teaching the "theory of mathematics" as a better way of teaching that 2+2=4 only to find out that the student cannot reliably determine what 2+2 is when questioned.
I used the phrase "it's direct programming" deliberately. This is an analogy we can wrap our minds around. We can think of direct instruction as being similar to direct programming. It is, effectively, a mechanism of putting content into a learner's mind as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that when the time comes later (as it will) that the learner needs to use that fact, it is instantly and easily accessible.
There is certainly no guarantee that direct programming will result in the instant and easy accessibility of content. This conflates the act of acquiring content with the act of retaining the content. It also ignores what we want the learner to do with the content once it has been mechanism acquired, that is, think about it and assimilate it so it can be represented in a structured and orderly way. No one seriously believes that merely learning lots of facts is the end-game of education. The real-end game is the student's ability to think and analyze better (at least in the relative domain of which those facts form the basis). And there's no getting around the fact that those who do know better (i.e., experts) also know more relevant facts and that these same experts don't think any better in areas that they don't know the facts.
Not so long ago, pretty much every bit of information a person needed in his or her life could be taught as a fact, which basic mechanisms - such as literacy - being used to make up the difference. Spending a lot of time teaching facts could be justified, because people needed basic knowledge to survive in an industrial world, needed to be able to understand the basics of language and literature, science and mathematics, and - crucially - not much more. And anything that detracted from that learning made a person less able to cope in society. These useless 'soft' skills might help with their hobbies and avocations, but they wouldn't help them get a job or do well in their career.
This presumes there was some golden age of education in which nearly everyone who tried, learned nearly everything that was important. There was no such golden age. I can think of no time in the past century in which one reform or another was under way in an attempt to reform the perceived inadequacies of the then-present education environment.
The economy has certainly shifted, in the US at least, from manufacturing to service, but I don't believe that service workers need to know any more or less than their manufacturing counterparts.
Nonetheless, I believe that both sides believe that a first-rate education (however defined) is paramount.
Today, the situation has completely turned around because of the six factors identified above. People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.
There is certainly a need for expertise and knowledge today. But, from what we know about the study of experts, one thing continues to be true -- experts know a lot of facts, otherwise known as domain knowledge. We value these experts because of their greater analytic ability (such as "literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting") and understanding of the domains in which they are experts. However, and this is the crucial bit, these same expertise have no greater analytic ability than the average Joe in areas in which they don't know the underlying facts.
By the way, did you notice that it didn't take many paragraphs of prose for Stephen to go from extolling the need for knowing facts, to belittling the need to know facts, to claiming that learning facts impairs the development of 21st Century learning.
That's the tell. And, that's the problem with all the advocates of "21st Century Learning" -- they say one thing, but they "tell" you another. Either they contradict themselves right in their own argument, as Stephen does, or they provide gloriously-fact-free "model lesson plans", like P21 does, that contradict their argument that "of course, learning both facts and skills is important."
So, while I believe Stephen when he writes that skills cannot be taught in the absence of facts, I also believe, based on his writings, that he thinks that facts should be marginalized as much as possible, taking a back-seat to the skills he thinks are important (based on current technology which apparently never goes obsolete). This has been a recurring theme in the 21st Century learning debate. One side is playing fast and loose with the rhetoric, keep getting called on it, deny it, continue using a slightly modified rhetoric, and wonder why the other side isn't taking them seriously.
And, that's a shame because we aren't getting anywhere fast in this debate. No progress is being made despite the apparent common middle ground that exists if you believe the rhetoric. The losers, of course, continue to be the school children.