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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'It's knowledge all the way down'

"Knowledge is what we think with," writes Greg Ashman, an Australian educator, on Filling the Pail. "Thinking in the absence of knowledge is like cooking in the absence of ingredients."

"We can no more think with knowledge sitting out there on the internet than we can think with

Rodin's "The Thinker"

knowledge stored in library books," he adds.

Ashman is responding to a claim by Geoff Masters of the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER), who says students need conceptual understanding, not "rote learning," to compete for "the jobs of the future."

The idea that students don't need to know things goes way back, Ashman writes. E. D. Hirsch addresses it in the Spring 2000 edition of American Educator. But "it's knowledge all the way down."

He proposes a thought experiment:

Describe what a deep conceptual understanding of the First World War looks like in a person with only limited knowledge of it. What about a deep conceptual understanding of computers in a person who does not know what the CPU and RAM do or what a program is?

Ashman also takes on the "jobs of the future" trope. "We cannot possibly know what knowledge and skills students will need" in the uncertain future, he writes. The best bet is to center our education system on "that which has endured."

In his school days, he was taught "how to use a word processing package on a BBC microcomputer and edit videotape," both skills that are now obsolete, Ashman writes. "What is still relevant, and will remain relevant for the foreseeable future, is basic arithmetic, linear functions, grammar and spelling and the few historical accounts I was actually taught." In short, "the best way to predict which ideas will be relevant long into the future are ones that have already proved useful enough to persist through a significant duration of the past."

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