It’s the end of the year as we know it

By Dr. Ian Kelleher

Knowledge versus/and Skill
Carmine "Red" Zuigiber is the war correspondents’ war correspondent. In the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whenever a group of war correspondents find themselves hunkered down behind the burned out shell of a Toyota HilLux pickup truck while bullets whizz overhead, conversation always turns at some point to stories of Red. While each journalist who finds themselves in this position is an expert in their field, she is the one that even the greats look up to.

Who are the “Red”s in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education science? Who do the greats look up to? If the great Professor Dylan Wiliam looks up to E.D. Hirsch, E.D. Hirsch is worth looking up to. And this is important because you might not like what comes next. This is what Dylan Wiliam just posted:

As E.D. Hirsch points out, skill is content, and content is skill. The so called "21st century skills" like "creativity" aren't really skills. They are collections of skills that are specific to a discipline, and require massive amounts of content knowledge.

Let that sink in and mull over all the implications. Try to get past arguing whether this is true or not. For a moment, just consider the possibility that E.D. Hirsch is right. What does this mean for your class? 

I am going to pick just one implication that I think is appropriate for this time of year when we start thinking about how to wrap up the story we have shared with each of our classes since school began. For some of us, this involves planning final summative assessments; for others, it means planning a satisfying and worthy culmination of the year’s work. Whatever you are planning, in the words of Dylan Wiliam,“massive amounts of content knowledge” are at the core.

End of year projects
This is true for Project Based Learning (PBL). Now is a great time to remind teachers of the potential pitfalls of Project Based Learning. Teachers often do not give students sufficient content knowledge to thrive in what John Hattie calls “the pit” of a well-crafted project. This leads to a widening of the achievement gap: Who has sufficient knowledge? Who does not? Where would they get it?

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clarke’s landmark study suggests that discovery methods of learning such as PBL are not effective or efficient means of teaching fundamental knowledge. Direct instruction is better. But lecture should lead somewhere and not be the end in itself - hence Hattie’s “pit” where students are challenged to use their newly acquired knowledge in new contexts. By doing so, they are more likely to form more durable, usable, and flexible long term memories, which has to be one of the goals of education. 

So as you prepare final projects, carefully think about this question: what is the Goldilocks amount of knowledge your students require? Too much and boredom will settle in; too little and frustration will rule. What is the perfect amount? And how can you differentiate as much as possible and still stay sane, knowing that the Goldilocks zone is different for each student in your class?

How do you know what your students know and do not know? Do not make assumptions. Just because you taught it at some point, or a previous teacher “covered it,” it does not necessarily mean they know it: coverage does not equal learning. But equally, don’t assume the knowledge is absent. Instead, devise a simple formative assessment to figure out what your students know, where the gaps are, and use your subject expertise to transport the kids from where they are to the Goldilocks zone, where they can thrive in the project pit you create for them.

The skills, “21st Century” or otherwise, that we want students to employ when we create a project are, as Hirsch and Wiliam point out, based on a massive amount of content knowledge. This perhaps underscores the value of projects as an assessment tool. An end of year project can be a great way to test whether the massive amounts of content you have “delivered” over the course of the year have stuck in ways that are usable, and usable in new contexts, by the students. But it does suggest that we need to get the underpinning level of knowledge just right for the project to be a valuable tool. The only person who can figure out where this balance point is is you. You are the master of your content, and you are also the master that can make these research informed teaching strategies work in your context and with your voice as a teacher.

Summative assessments & exams
If there is a current knowledge versus skills debate happening in education right now, Hirsch’s insight suggests that it is petty squabbling. In addition to insights regarding how active working memory and long term memory actually work, and an appreciation of what cognitive load theory looks like in real classroom settings, Hirsch tells us that knowledge is crucially important to learning. And it feels odd, thinking back through the history of education in all its forms, to have to argue a case for “knowing stuff.”

We can argue that a well-balanced curriculum contains, among other things, direct instruction, projects, and moments where students have to demonstrate their current knowledge on a test or exam. Plus lots and lots of lots of formative assessment to help us do all of these things better (and to help all students learn how they can do all of these things better). It is important to ensure that students know stuff. This has probably been true from the very first moments we could look back at the hominid evolutionary tree and recognize, by their behavior, a precursor of modern humans. Making sure that our kids know stuff is part of what makes us human.

So if this is an argument for “traditional” exams and tests, it comes with two important caveats. Firstly, that tests occur as part of a well-balanced diet, one that challenges to demonstrate their learning in multiple modalities throughout the course of the year. Secondly, when we do them, we should dedicate ourselves to doing them damn well - as good as they can possibly be done.

We have covered what this means in recent posts, so will just review it here. But it gets at the question we posed in the last Bridge: what will your students remember six months from now? A year? Two years? And how do you shift the status in your favor?

You do it by not leaving students studying to chance. Students have a huge responsibility to prepare for tests and exams, and ultimately it all comes down to how hard they work and the quality of the strategies they choose to use. But what can we do as teachers to help ensure they have the best strategies possible in their toolbox? How can we expose them to enough reflection and metacognitive experiences so that they have a good sense of how to use the right strategy at the right time, which Hattie suggests is the goal of effective learning?

Teach memory strategies alongside content. Use reflection effectively to help students find strategies that work for them, knowing that different strategies will work at different times.

Encourage students to use active retrieval methods for studying. These make use of “the testing effect” - the act of trying to recall information that you are just starting to forget helps it stick better. Students often do not enjoy doing this, so you may need to incentivize it or use some class time for it. The testing effect is strongly supported by research evidence as a way to build durable memories, so the struggle is worth it.

Dissuade students from rereading notes as their go-to strategy; re-reading should occur after some form of active retrieval exercise, which aids memory and primes the brain for rereading. The simplest form of active retrieval is to take a blank sheet of paper and write out what you know. Maybe add simple diagrams and arrows to link ideas. It is worth the teacher’s effort to create some active retrieval exercises for students, such as practice tests (with posted answers, if possible), to try to get them started at using these more effective forms of studying rather than simply rereading their notes, which they might be more used to.

Remind students how to use flash cards properly. They tend to turn them over too quickly. The real benefit comes from struggling to remember. Even if remembering proves impossible, the act of struggling primes the brain to remember. If they do know what is on the card, they should try and connect it to something else. Again, the struggle of trying to do so aids memory storage.

Interleave content towards the end of the year so that you include spaced review of older content. The makes use of “the spacing effect” - another strategy that is really strongly supported by research evidence. The best time to try and remember old information is just as you are beginning to forget it. This rustiness is an example of what Robert Bjork calls a “desirable difficulty” that aids long term memory.

Make time in class to help students plan their studying. For every one of our children, their executive functioning skills are far from fully developed. This has to be the case because the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which plays a huge role in executive functioning, is the last region to fully mature, not until our mid-twenties. Also, since it is last area of the brain to fully mature, the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain whose growth is likely to be most influenced the greatest by environmental factors - the learning experiences children have and how we help them unpack these experiences.

Bringing the year to a worthy and satisfying culmination
We create or bring into our classes the best curricula we can. Quality of curriculum at every age and and in every subject makes a huge difference to learning. We spend the year emotionally engaged with building our students’ learning, using our professional knowledge, practical wisdom, and research informed insights to deliver the highest quality pedagogy we can. We do this because we want to build both knowledge and skills, but each skill is underpinned by massive amounts of content knowledge. To best prepare each of our students for their next year of schooling, and life beyond school, we need to be in the business of building knowledge. Sometimes we just think about the end of the year as measuring where students are. This can be part of it. But it is also a fabulous opportunity to work strategically at building the most robustly durable, usable, and flexible long term memories we can - at every grade level, in every subject, in all types of schools.

1. Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark. “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” Educational Psychologist 41, no. 2 (2006): 75–86. See also Sweller, John, Paul A. Kirschner, and Richard E. Clark. “Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries.” Educational Psychologist 42, no. 2 (April 26, 2007): 115–21.

Additional Resources:

The Learning Scientists (Podcasts):

Retrieval Practice:

Retrieval Practice (Make It Stick):


Stop by the CTTL with any questions about these or other research-informed study strategies