Facts, Skills and Wagon Wheels

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I have spent the last week looking back at one of my lessons in light of listening to Daisy Christodoulou on Radio 4’s series, ‘The Educators’. To reduce her argument: “Have too few facts been taught in schools in favour of teaching skills?”
It was a lesson for a Yr11 group I see only once a fortnight for Progress Plus, in which I intended to motivate through curiosity. I needed to provide an opportunity for the students to practise the skills they would have to employ in the English GCSE exam. Practising skills can be tedious. The facts in the lesson were chosen for motivational purposes. In my experience, students are often very interested in general knowledge. News stories too are powerful motivators.

The lesson began with a picture of the large balloons which the South Koreans had used last summer to smuggle ‘Choco-pies’ into North Korea. The picture had no caption and no headline. The students needed to guess what was happening and write a suitable headline. The task was open-ended and produced a wide range of ideas.
Wagon wheels were then introduced, the bold red packaging waved from the front of the class: What was the link between the picture and the biscuits? (Or are they cakes?)
An abridged article from a national newspaper was then read. The two tasks followed. First, facts had to be found. Then, inferences needed to be made. Facts in the reading section of an English examination are incidental. To gain marks you must be able to interpret and infer. The facts are unforeseeable in this exam; skills are everything. But as I always tell my students, “Don’t forget that you will go into that examination knowing stuff”. I remind them not to forget what they know from everyday life. The notion of Cultural Literacy, which seemed to me to be the strongest part of Daisy Christodoulou’s argument, is a powerful one. But then again, reading an unseen text, and relating it to your bank of prior knowledge, is a taught reading skill.
We introduced some numeracy, comparing income in the UK and North Korea, using the recent revelation of the average £14,000 salary in parts of Wales and Cornwall, to work out the percentage of annual income these biscuits were selling for. Each student was offered a Wagon Wheel with the question, ‘You have just spent £1400 pounds on that, how does it taste?’ The news story had become relevant to them.
The lesson ended with the students deciding which product from our society could have the potential to be raised to cult object.
I look back at my lesson: the facts made the lesson interesting; students value fact acquisition – they see this as learning; practising skills is necessary. Is teaching important skills sometimes equivalent to hiding vegetables in pasta sauce?
I look at my own values: I value facts for how they fit together. Making connections between things is how my brain is primed. I don’t remember the date of the French Revolution, I can guesstimate it by tying it to Literary History and the Romantic Movement. As an English teacher, the links between the politics and the world of Literature are what interest me. Or am I simply falling back on a learnt skill which aids memory and the recall of facts?
The work of Herbert Simon, mentioned by Daisy Christodoulou, is where I plan to head next. His position was summarised on this episode of ‘The Educators’ as: Students need a bedrock of facts with opportunities to practise retrieving them in many different situations.
For me, facts and skills go hand in hand: I can’t see fact-only lessons appearing in my classroom in the near future.
And now I go to do some of my own homework: My students wanted to know how much one of those South Korean balloons cost; one student mentioned Gadhafi and I need to know more; I want to know if Wagon Wheels fall into a biscuit or cake category for tax purposes. Facts, facts and more facts… but I’ll be employing my research skills to find them out…

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