The Myth of Thinking Skills

Latin Labelled Brain

A century ago, half of all American high school students were enrolled on Latin courses. It was a high water mark for traditional academic study in the USA, following the recommendations of the Committee of Ten, and before the progressive influence began to take hold through institutions such as Columbia Teachers College.

The vast majority of these students of Latin were not intending to go to college. Their decision to study such traditional material was not therefore part of a college prep programme. Why was Latin so popular? The answer lies in the fact that Latin was the subject which had the highest reputation as a method for training the mind. Most parents and students believed that the intellectual element of education primarily consisted of developing mental discipline.

In other words, Latin, and other traditional academic studies, were primarily justified on the basis of what we would nowadays call transferable skills. Even if you never read a word of Latin after school, the argument ran, you would have a more agile mind which would perform better in any task, if you put yourself through the mental gymnastics of translating Caesar. It’s an argument we still hear today from the likes of Neville Gwynne.

Unfortunately for those who justify the study of Latin in this way, experimental psychology has consistently shown, from the late nineteenth century onwards, that it is a myth. Your ability to translate Latin does not have any measurable impact upon your general mental capabilities.

There’s a delicious irony here, of which few people are aware. A century ago, traditionalists used the concept of mental discipline to justify the study of Latin. They lost the argument, and Latin faded from the curriculum, along with the general respect for academic study for all, regardless of whether they were bound for college. A hundred years later, the same argument was used to empty the curriculum of content in, for example, the 2007 National Curriculum for England and Wales. It didn’t matter what you studied, the argument ran, so long as you developed thinking skills and creativity. Knowledge would quickly become obsolete anyway in the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, so you just needed to ‘learn how to learn’.

Progressives helped to destroy the myth of transferable skills in the early twentieth century, only to revive the same myth in the early twenty-first century. In both cases, it was the traditional academic curriculum which was the enemy. In both cases, this curriculum was seen as outdated and irrelevant to the lives of most students in the modern world, so it ended up being reserved for the privileged few.

Most traditionalists shot themselves in the foot by depending on a myth a century ago. But there have been other voices, then and now, who have defended teaching academic subject matter to all students not on the basis of mental training, but on the basis of powerful knowledge. As Diane Ravitch points out:

Mental discipline was objectionable not only to progressive educators, but to liberal educators who believed that knowledge and understanding were of far greater importance than the alleged power gained from mental gymnastics. James H. Baker, a dissenting member of the Committee of Ten, had argued that “mere form, mere power, without content, means nothing. Power is power through knowledge. The very world in which we are to use our power is the world which we must first understand in order to use it. The present is understood, not by the power to read history, but by what history contains.” (Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, p62)

The mind grows when it is nourished with powerful knowledge, and all are capable of acquiring a huge amount of such knowledge if traditional methods are used to inculcate it. It really does matter what you study, and the best preparation for a useful and enjoyable life is a broad, knowledge rich curriculum that gives students access to serious reading and discussion.

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12 thoughts on “The Myth of Thinking Skills

  1. Well, yes and no. I think we all accept that you can’t have skills without content. I dispute your assertion that the 2007 national Curriculum “emptied the curriculum of content”. In the Mick Waters “Big Picture” diagram, all the traditional subjects were there. It’s true that there was a shift of focus towards the notions of skills and competencies which had possibly been downplayed in the previous version.This was an attempt to break down the silo effect, where subject boundaries sometimes led to similar content being covered in different subject areas without any cross-reference. I agree with your statements about knowledge, but my caveat is that knowledge per se without the skills to read critically, analyse. synthesise, infer and thus debate and discuss from a secure platform only creates a generation of pub quiz champions. I think it’s been widely (and sometimes deliberately) misinterpreted that those who promoted the skills agenda were against knowledge. There is no dichotomy in an effective pedagogy. Students must acquire knowledge, but they must also develop the skills to apply that knowledge appropriately. Any argument that posits a polarity between the two is surely misguided and unhelpful.Thank you for an interesting post.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed response to the post.

      No one is saying that you don’t need to apply knowledge. But the knowledge comes first, and is the basis for the skill, which is domain specific. Too often, the ‘breaking down silos’ idea has been used to attack traditional academic disciplines, which are the best foundation for critical thinking, not an impediment to it.

      Yes, the subjects were there in the 2007 curriculum, but there was a lack of specific content. The requirements were generalised skills, which hardly differed from one subject to another.

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  2. Anthony, in Roy Lowe’s account progressive education died before 2007. ‘The Death of Progressive Education: How teachers lost control of the classroom.’ Routledge, 2007. So thinking skills may not be anything to do with Progressive Education.
    In the case of Music we have practical knowledge, embodied knowledge and aesthetic knowledge which makes the skills-knowledge thing all a bit silly.

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    • Progressive education is alive and well. I was in its grip until less than a year ago. You’d have to define your different types of knowledge for me if you want to discuss how they fit into this debate.

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      • Perhaps you were in the grip of a particular recent phenomenon and a break from progressive education as set out by Lowe and other education historians.
        My next week’s blog will elaborate on knowledge plurality.

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      • Have you read Robert Peal’s ‘Progressively Worse’? That describes perfectly the sort of progressivism which I have experienced for most of my life, as a student and then as a teacher.

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  3. Thank for another insightful and fascinating blog which for me is the must read blog on the internet. While others seem to have a fascination for finding every blog and blogger in the known universe I usually reab only about 3 regularly and yours is a must read for me.

    I don’t always agree, as you will be aware but for me I have a feeling that your blog will help me to work out exactly where I stand amongst the range of educational ideas floating around out there.

    I agree 100% with this statement…..

    “The mind grows when it is nourished with powerful knowledge, and all are capable of acquiring a huge amount of such knowledge if traditional methods are used to inculcate it. It really does matter what you study, and the best preparation for a useful and enjoyable life is a broad, knowledge rich curriculum that gives students access to serious reading and discussion.”

    I would appreciate some links to this one however as I cannot find such evidence in the literature….although ‘impact upon your general mental capabilities’ may be a slippery one.

    “Unfortunately for those who justify the study of Latin in this way, experimental psychology has consistently shown, from the late nineteenth century onwards, that it is a myth. Your ability to translate Latin does not have any measurable impact upon your general mental capabilities.”

    I would appreciate some pointers for this one if possible.

    The ‘myth of transferable skills’ issue is one that i hope you will tackle in depth some time. Are you suggesting that one can carry out excellent evaluation in a historical context while being unable to do so in a mathematical context if you have lots of knowledge of history but little knowledge of maths as a discipline. Is the ‘myth’ that evaluation in history can simply be transferred to maths, when you believe that before one can evaluate in maths then one needs the mathematical knowledge.?

    Regards

    Brian

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    • Brian, thanks for taking the time to comment in such detail.

      As you say, evaluation in any given area of expertise requires knowledge of that area. The ability to analyse and evaluate is domain-specific. Those who appear to have a general skill of analysis are those who have very good general knowledge.

      Daniel Willingham and E D Hirsch both deal with the questions of knowledge, skills and transfer in depth. See the ‘essential reading’ page on my blog.

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  4. Knowledge is knowing stuff, thinking is applying it. They are in a symbiotic relationship. Traditional schooling has emphasized the former. A progressive model will seek a balance. Application of knowledge and skills become the motivation and context in which, and for which, the knowledge is acquired and mastered.

    A second problem with the model of schooling in many countries is that the content IS useless beyond any academic setting. Even engineers don’t actually need to know the maths these days that schools still teach – computers can do all the calculations for them.

    Too much of what we ask students to learn in school is still “academic” – the latin root (haha, see does pay to know some) of which means “not practical”

    From 13-14yrs on I believe we need to give students far greater choice in what they want to learn, and then through a mixture of traditional knowledge based teaching, and project based learning help them excel in it.

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    • I’m afraid you are contradicting yourself. You start by saying knowledge needs to be applied, which no one would deny, then go on to denigrate knowledge, claiming that computers can replace human memory. You cannot think with the contents of a computer. You can only think with the contents of your memory. Would you, for example, claim that one can be articulate without having memorised a large vocabulary? After all, the entire English vocabulary can be accessed on a smartphone at the touch of a button!

      You have demonstrated by your own confused points that progressive ideas do not strike a balance. They devalue the mastery of knowledge, and thus lead to the intellectual crippling of their many victims.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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