Does it matter what we learn?

Subjects are no more than convenient containers for content that changes over time. Besides, says Kevin Stannard, we’ll forget most of it, anyway.


How we learn is as important as what we learn. And where we learn is rapidly being recognised as the third leg of the stool.

The where relates to the physical setting and the environmental conditions, down to the layout (or outright obsolescence) of desks and hard chairs, the quality of light and ventilation, the colour of the walls, the presence or absence of plants (or, failing that, even pictures of plants). It even includes the digital alternatives to formal, school-based learning.

The how of learning points to the development of dispositions that might be useful in later life: ownership, responsibility, curiosity, creativity. It encompasses the skills that are increasingly becoming differentiators in the job market: problem-solving, emotional intelligence, collaboration. These are developed (or suppressed), depending on the pedagogy employed by the teacher.

The rate of loss

So does it really matter what we learn? Forget Gradgrind. No need to dwell on ED HirschDiane Ravitch is clear on the pointlessness of trying to teach skills and develop dispositions in a vacuum; Michael Young argues persuasively for the entitlement of everyone to “powerful knowledge”.

But time takes its toll. How much of the detail of what you learned at school have you retained? Someone once did a study of how much vocabulary adults remember from their school lessons in modern foreign languages. The rate of loss was startling: by the time they’d reached middle age, what they’d retained amounted to about one word per year of schooling. Incroyable.

Since formal schooling began, the curriculum (the what of learning) has been defined in terms of subjects, and the actual list of subjects has been amazingly resilient. But subjects are no more than convenient containers for content that does change, sometimes quite radically, over time.

The truth of this was brought home to me last weekend, amid celebrations marking 100 years of the Geographical Tripos at Cambridge. Same name, same building, same venerable portraits, but two highly significant changes. As an undergraduate, decades ago, I took for granted that historical geography was a substantial part of the edifice – the sub-discipline dominated the department, and a third of the faculty were historical geographers. Today, though, and a lone lecturer lists himself as an historical geographer.

The other change has been in the freedom to specialise within the subject. Until quite recently, being a geographer required sustained study of both the physical and the human components, at least for a couple of years.

Sense of discovery

Of the stuff that I learned, I don’t remember the details, but I can still conjure up the sense of discovery, what it felt like to engage with difficult material, the delight when it came together: the social and economic fault-lines at the heart of the Salem witchcraft accusations; the linguistic diversity of “Italians” on the eve of the Risorgimento; the shattering consequences of lines drawn on maps during the partition of India.

I was at school when plate tectonics was a relatively new and mind-blowing concept. It’s now a curricular commonplace. The content changes, and much of the subject with it. New stuff is needed to excite attention. In the case of geography, whatever the content or the course, as the facts fade, what abides will be an understanding of the connectedness of things, and the importance of scale, over time and across space.

This is what Howard Gardner was on about when he argued for the importance of disciplinary thinking, and for a focus on the weapons that each subject brings to the student’s abiding intellectual armoury.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1