Spotlight On: Deep Knowledge

11 May 2018

This article was first published in the Queenwood Weekly Newsletter on 4 May 2018.

Military history and high educational policy came together this week, which marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. In our Senior School assembly we commemorated the lives lost in what Churchill regarded as the greatest peril of the entire war. In the first four years of WWII, the Allies had lost up to 1600 ships per year. Britain needed 1 million tons of supplies per week to survive, but by 1943 the losses of ships, men, food and materiel to U-boats in the Atlantic had pushed them close to defeat. Britain had just two months of supplies left.

In the Spring of 1943, however, the course of the war changed dramatically thanks to the results of operational research – a new discipline pioneered by the brilliant physicist (and later Nobel Prize winner), Patrick Blackett. The task of the team led by Blackett was simple: observe war operations and make them more effective. Their solutions were devastatingly effective and yet astonishingly simple. The two examples we looked at in Assembly used the midpoint formula and the quadratic relationship between side length and area – both of which our girls learn by the end of Year 10 – to change tactics for convoys and air cover with immediate, dramatic results.* Within two months, the Germans had lost 25% of the U-boat fleet and all but abandoned the fight. It was a turning point in the war.

We used the Assembly to pay our respects to the war dead, but this particular story also throws light on a key idea in education. Millions of people in Britain knew the necessary mathematical formulae. Huge resources were committed to winning the battle. Yet it took Blackett and his team to cut through the complexity of the problem and solve it with the most basic mathematics.

It is common these days to hear calls to prioritise critical thinking and creativity over ‘just learning subjects’. Given the intuitive attraction, it is particularly important to examine the logic of such calls, which seems to be:

  • Complex problem-solving requires critical thinking, creativity and other ‘21st century skills’.

  • Facts can now easily be looked up.

  • Complex problems involve issues from lots of different disciplines.

  • Therefore we should teach critical thinking and creativity instead of teaching knowledge. And we should teach in a cross-disciplinary way structured around critical thinking and creativity, instead of using a traditional curriculum structure divided into subjects.

The first three propositions are undeniable. The last is an excellent educational prescription – for a race of aliens with completely different brain structure. For human beings, however, it is a potentially disastrous misunderstanding of how we think. I have explained this in detail elsewhere so I will avoid labouring the point here. Suffice to say:  (1) critical thinking, creativity and all those valued skills are the product of deep knowledge and many years of practice at a high level; and (2) given the limitations of working memory, working with simplified models (ie within subject disciplines) is typically the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

Ultimately, of course, the point is to be able to tackle complex, cross-disciplinary problems with a high degree of creativity and critical thinking, but generally this is the realm of the expert. Our girls are certainly given cross-disciplinary tasks, but in a carefully structured way and judiciously small doses.
And the relevance of the Battle of the Atlantic? It is a beautiful example of how all this works. It didn’t take brilliant physics to find the answer, but it did take brilliant physicists. They used their vast knowledge not to devise the solution but to define the question. As I have explained previously, beginners and experts think about problems quite differently. Experts sift out irrelevant material, identify fundamental structures of problems and bring more sophisticated patterns of thought to bear on them. If we are serious about creativity and critical thinking, we need to get serious about creating experts.

Interestingly, the Gonski 2.0 report released this week seems to fall into the trap of assuming that critical thinking and creativity can be taught in a generic way (Section 2.6), without being embedded within a particular area of study. On this basis it recommends fundamental changes to the National Curriculum. If this approach is truly intended, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the error. Let us hope that a more accurate understanding of human cognition will emerge in the detailed implementation of what is admittedly a brief report.

Finally, I commend to you the upcoming Balmoral Lecture on 22 May. If you don’t already know it, I urge you to spend three minutes watching the video message to the troops made by General Morrison in 2013 when he was Chief of Army, which gained worldwide attention. I defy anyone to watch it and not be impressed by its moral force and leadership. Since then, General Morrison has retired from the Army, been recognised as Australian of the Year and committed himself to effecting institutional and social change, with a particular emphasis on respecting the dignity and freedoms of women. He is an eminent and inspiring speaker so I hope you will join us – and bring your friends, family and colleagues.

*If you are mathematically inclined you may like to explore The Pleasures of Counting by TW K├Ârner. He gives a brilliant account of this work – and many other elegant applications of mathematics to the world.