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The information explosion and the erosion of learning (Part 2): How to be a progressive school in 2019

| January 27, 2020 | 0 Comments


In Part 1 of this article, we discussed the impact of the knowledge explosion and the Fourth Industrial Revolution on teaching and learning in the 21st century.

Some salient points include the following:
• There seems to be a growing view that the importance of subject-specific knowledge is becoming less relevant as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking shape, requiring a more agile workforce.
• With artificial intelligence taking over jobs that were previously seen as uniquely human, there is a need to ‘futureproof’ students.
• Educational institutions are increasingly asking questions about the importance of knowledge and the nature of teaching and learning.

Skills-based teaching

A popular approach to the challenges posed above has been a one-sided development of generic skills – such as critical thinking and creativity – since these are at least not seen as context dependent to the extent that knowledge is. It is also seen as an ideal way to move away from traditional teaching practices, such as rote learning, in favour of more ‘progressive’ practices like project-based learning, personalisation, collaboration, etc. On the face of it, such an approach is a sensible one. However, if not done thoughtfully, an uncritical move to a solely skills-based approach, at the expense of a shared knowledge-based curriculum, may not be the best strategy. Ideally, one would like to know in advance, based on evidence, what the chances of success and also possible pitfalls of such an approach are. Fortunately, we have the benefit of what has been called the French Experiment to provide us with just such an example.

The French Experiment

In his book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, Hirsch1 provides a detailed discussion of what happened to education in France after 1989 with the adoption of the so-called loi Jospin. Up to 1989, all French children were expected to master the same curriculum – irrespective of their background, whether they were immigrants, privileged or poor. The prevailing sentiment, as old as the French Revolution, was that everybody in France was entitled to the same
basic education. Hirsch quotes President Giscard d’Estaing, who stated as late as 1977: ‘The defining and acquiring of the very same knowledge by all French children… will be an essential element in the unity of French society, and in the reduction of inequalities of opportunity.’ However, as these words were uttered, the sentiment they represented was already being undermined by two trends. On the one hand, a unified, centrally
determined curriculum was increasingly seen as oppressive and unfair to minorities. On the other hand, the so-called progressive education movement from the United States was gaining ground in teacher education in France. The combination of these two trends led to the loi Jospin. As Hirsch points out, the national curriculum was abandoned in favour of more localised curricula, individualised further by closer attention to the individuality of each student in terms of abilities, interests and culture. Clearly, the latter was a result of the influence of the American progressive
education movement. Because students were not taught the same
curriculum everywhere, what their education had in common were generic skills such as critical thinking and the ability to learn –
approaches that we are all familiar with in 2019. The results were

How not to transform education

The French Experiment provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate an uncritical adoption of a skills-based approach to teaching at the cost of a strong knowledge-based curriculum. Except for the change in curriculum, everything else remained the same. It was taught in the same schools, by the same teachers, with the same
funding and resources as before. But it proved to be a huge
mistake. The results of research by the French ministry of
education showed a steep decline in performance across the
board. In comparison to the previous centralised communal
curriculum, the localised curriculum with its focus on individual
differences and the acquisition of generic skills resulted in
significant underperformance in comparison to previous
generations of students. Ironically, although each layer of society
was affected, the effects were worse for poorer and disenfranchised communities. So instead of benefiting those on the fringes of society, which ostensibly was the intent of the loi Jospin, it had the exact opposite effect. By 2007, the end result was that French education, long held in high regard, was seen as a ‘debacle’.2

Towards sustainable progressive teaching

The French Experiment had good intentions. It wanted to ensure that each student, irrespective of background, was well prepared for the future. Since schools are looking at similar progressive approaches to teaching in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, care should be taken not to repeat the same mistakes.

One common thread in so-called progressive approaches to teaching and learning is a sense of discomfort with detailed subject knowledge acquisition against a common, predetermined curriculum. This is partly due to the fact that traditional teaching (which focuses on knowledge) is often boring, unengaging and uninspiring. In a fast-paced digital world, such an approach just does not seem viable. In comparison to this, approaches such as project-based learning, collaboration and a focus on personalised teaching seem much more inspiring – especially if they promote generic skills such as critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
However, we now know from research over the last 30 years that these generic skills, such as creativity and critical thinking, are not in opposition to content mastery but are, in fact, dependent upon
it. The notion that one can be a critical thinker without context is
mistaken, since critical thinking requires significant foundational
knowledge, and the way to achieve this is to insist that all students
master a rigorous, well conceptualised curriculum – irrespective of
their background. Students excel academically when teachers raise
the bar instead of looking for the lowest common denominator in
the form of generic skills. We know from research that
transference (the ability to transfer skills from one domain to
another) is very difficult and requires thorough mastery from
students before they are able to do so.

Critical thinking is one such skill which is difficult to replicate across domains. To think that it is possible to apply a high-level generic ‘critical thinking skill’ to detailed contexts without any prior experience of doing so, is to misunderstand the very nature of what ‘critical thinking’ entails.

Sustainable progressive teaching is therefore rooted in promoting sound foundational knowledge, based on a comprehensive and demanding curriculum, delivered in a variety of modalities, including – but not limited to – project-based and collaborative teaching strategies. It is not the devaluation of knowledge. Its intention is rather to motivate and push students to embrace the foundational knowledge required to empower them to be the critical, creative and agile thinkers required in the 21st century.


1. Hirsch, E.D. (2016) Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press (Kindle edition).

2. Lafforgue, L. and Lurçat, L. (eds) (2007) ‘La Débâcle de l’École: Un Tragédie Incomprise’. Paris: François-Xavier de Guibert; as referenced b Hirsch, E.D. (2016) op. cit.

Category: Summer 2019

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