by MERLIN CROSSLEY
I remember long ago being out with a group of students in England. They all came from different parts of the country, and I came from Australia. At a certain stage the conversation turned to England’s soccer victory over Germany in the 1966 world cup. My companions knew every detail. They shared and competed to bring forth new knowledge. I didn’t have a clue but soon learnt the key facts. None of us were old enough to have actually seen the game but the narrative was common knowledge and this shared information seemed to unite people.
On other topics of youthful knowledge I was better. I knew about the Manchester music scene, the Smiths and Stone Roses. It was easy to find common ground. It was the same with books. You only had to mention a few and before long you’d have something in common.
In the lab there were several different types of knowledge that united people. Knowledge about people and places, knowledge about techniques (especially difficult techniques, like running huge sequencing gels, or carrying out very large gene library screens that involved hundreds of sloppy plates and radioactive filters), and knowledge of scientific facts. Departmental trivia nights might include all these categories, and this helped form communities.
Where people come from also brings people together. But we all came from different places. We all spoke with different accents too. It was other knowledge that held the community together not shared experiences of ‘place’ while growing up.
I remember once when I was going to the US to attend a biochemistry conference the US border guard asked me several tough questions – as they sometimes do – and surprised me by finishing with ‘how many molecules of ATP are produced by the citric acid cycle’. It’s a standard biochemistry question – he smiled as I confidently gave (what was actually) the wrong answer. We both laughed because we had something in common. He had also studied biochemistry and we had both forgotten key details.
Establishing student communities is uppermost in the minds of many university teachers. If you are successful in binding students into a community, with a common purpose (learning the material in the Course is one simple purpose) then everyone benefits. Mental health issues will be fewer if students are connected and support each other, and learning will be more effective.
Teaching core knowledge and insisting that it is learnt is one way of establishing shared knowledge, and even identity, that can help build communities. Football and musical knowledge is acquired painlessly by osmosis and that’s one way of learning. Another way is learning by rote. This is less fashionable and can be arduous and painful but students uniting against a teacher who demands some reasonable level of rote learning can also help form a community.
Beyond this actually knowing things – rather than relying on looking them up – does have many advantages. If one is learning French, one just has to know the vocabulary, one can’t hold a conversation while looking up words, even with a brilliant new iPhone app. Every discipline has some core knowledge that students need to learn and knowing things builds not only capability, but also identity and confidence.
The learning of this core knowledge shouldn’t be made too painful but a bit of effort does heighten the experience, so course content does remain very important. But it is very hard to get the balance right between core knowledge, and synthetic understanding of concepts and creative mastery. Often as academics develop their own increasing knowledge over long careers spanning three or four decades some end up having unrealistic expectations about how much students should know.
As teaching and learning technology have changed different teachers have also taken different approaches to insisting on core knowledge and simply letting students – look it up. Even I remember when some of my teachers used to say – “no need to know this, it’s in the textbook”– and others would say – “I want you to know this as it will always be useful”. Over time the idea that you could look everything up seems to have expanded. Perhaps because you actually can look so much up on the web, but also perhaps because modern teachers from the Western tradition prioritise “understanding” over “rote learning” – though I think the two can go hand in hand.
This year with electronic assessments and open book exams, there has been less “cramming” during StuVac, and perhaps less rote learning of facts. This may well be better and perhaps it is the right counterbalance to ageing professors insisting that young students do the hard yards of learning that they did long ago.
Shared knowledge can be used to unite communities so it remains important. It can also be grounds for exclusion, and I still do remember feeling uncomfortable about not knowing the English world cup team, and there were also many shibboleths of local pronunciation and pedantic grammar that identified outsiders (that will make a good topic for another day).
But the evening ended well. After the discussion of football, there was talk of music and of books and films, and finally verbatim renditions of Monty Python sketches. Everyone knew the “Spanish Inquisition”, “luxury!”, and several pieces that highlighted Australia’s most admired qualities. It was not long before common knowledge made us all feel at home.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic