In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.
Aims and methods
The generic skills approach implies that skills are transferable and that the best way to develop a skill is to practice that skill. It is based on the analogy of the mind acting as a muscle.
There are examples of curriculums that follow this model like the RSA opening minds curriculum; it is interesting to contrast this to the core knowledge curriculum mentioned by Hirsch and the DI models.
Instruction based on this model is organised around developing transferable skills through projects where students practice authentic performances.
However research from 50 years of cognitive science shows us that skill is domain specific and dependent on knowledge. The examples of studies into Chess grand masters is given. These were the earliest experiments but have been reliably repeated in other knowledge domains. There are multiple lines of evidence that suggest the same thing (A bit like evolutionary theory).
Complex skills depend on mental models which are specific to a particular domain. These models are built in long term memory. They can be drawn on to solve problems and prevent working memory from being overloaded.
Working memory is highly limited and relying on it to solve problems is highly ineffective. Learning is the process of aquiring these mental models. Performance is the process of using them.
Formative assessment should aim to assess how these mental models are being developed. Summative assessment measures the performance or act of using those mental models.
Even scientific thinking is domain specific. One cannot evaluate anomalies or the plausibility of a hypothesis without domain specific knowledge.
The adoption of generic skills theory leads to a practical flaw: lessons are too careless about the exact content knowledge that is included in them (this also ties in with Hirsch’s ideas that individualisation leads to a reduction in knowledge). If skills are not transferable we need to be very careful about what the content of a lesson is. Specifics matter.
The educational aim of developing generic skills is sound but we need to think about the method. We can develop critical thinking only by equipping learners with knowledge. Good generic readers or problem solvers have a wide background knowledge.
Aquiring mental models is an active process. project based lessons can work as they help students to make the knowledge their own, its just that sufficient care and attention to the content that is to be learned is applied.
Specific and focussed practice is what is needed to develop skill. As shown by the work of K. Anders Ericsson, there is a difference between deliberate practice and performance. Deliberate practice builds mental models, while performance uses them.
What is learning and how is it different from performance? Learning is the creation of mental models of reality in long term memory. Copying what experts do (performing) is not a useful way of developing the skill of the expert because they do not build the mental models. Instead these lessons will overwhelm working memory and will be counter-productive.
Generic skill models only allow feedback that is generic, it does not allow are feedback to tell students exactly how to improve. “think from multiple perspectives more” is not useful advice if kids don’t know how to do it.
Models of progression are needed to show the progress that students are making.
Peer and self assessment can be useful so long as they are used appropriately. The Dunning Kruger effect shows us that novices cannot judge their performance accurately (does this contradict Hattie’s claim about self reported grades that kids know where they are at?). Developing pupils ability involves developing their ability to pervcieve quality. We cannot expect them to self assess complex tasks and showing them excellent work is not enough to develop excellence. Particular aspects of work need to be highlighted by the teacher.
To develop skill we need lots of specific knowledge and practice at using that knowledge. This helps to close the knowing-doing gap.