The first-ever Innovation Unit quiz – test your content knowledge

January 11, 2010 at 9:44 am 9 comments

by Alec Patton

portrait of Mughal emperor Babur,
from V&A (

You don’t need to read very much about education before you come across arguments about the place of ‘content’ (that is, stuff that you memorise) vs. ‘skills’ (that is, strategies, methods, and the ability to apply to match a particular method to a particular situation). For a characteristic instance of this debate, see the comment stream to this blog post by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor

Now, whenever the ‘content’ vs. ‘skills’  debate occurs,  somebody points out that it’s a false dichotomy: far from being mutually exclusive, skills and content are invariably intertwined. In response, the partisans point out that educators generally emphasise one over the other, and this shift of emphasis utterly alters the nature of education. And thus the debate rages on.

I’d like to make a contribution to the debate – not an argument, but an experiment.

Take a moment to respond to the following four questions:

1. How do you derive the cosine of a triangle?

2. Outline the governance structure of the Mughal Empire.

3. draw a diagram to indicate single, double, and triple covalent bonds between molecules (you can choose any molecules).

4. What is a trochee?

I chose these four questions because I remember learning the answers to them when I was in high school – I was tested on my knowledge and (at the risk of sounding arrogant) I did very well in those tests. And the only question I can answer today is question 4*.  I possess this piece of knowledge not because I was taught it in my high school English classes (though I was), and not because I learned it as an undergraduate studying English literature (though I did). The reason I can define ‘ trochee’ today is that while I was doing my PhD, I taught the introductory English module to first-year undergraduates.

If you’re confident that your teachers never taught you how to answer my questions, you can make up your own – just think of some things you’re sure you once learned, and see how much specific information you can recall.

If you know the answers to all these questions, I really want to know more about how you were taught – so please don’t be shy about trumpeting your success.

If you don’t know the answers to these questions but you would like to know them, I suggest you look them up – a skill that you almost certainly still posess, regardless of how much discipline-specific content you can recall.

*A trochee is a metric foot consisting of a  stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (‘cooking apples lack a certain sweetness’ has five trochees – if you want to be really specific, it’s a line of trochaic pentameter)


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

“I saw people have light-bulb moments…” Slivers-of-Time: standing out for being innovative

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Claire McEneaney  |  January 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Rather randomly I could probably draw a covalent bond for you but whether I could accurately remember the amount of electrons shared would be quite a different story! I think I’d definitely need a periodic table to even attempt that.

  • 2. thirup  |  January 12, 2010 at 9:40 am

    This reminds me of a debate there has been about education in Denmark for the last couple or years. When tested in geography and other classes danish students are getting worse at memorising facts such as the names of all the countries in Europe. The government thinks this is a sign, that the level of education is declining, whereas teacher in Denmark are less concerned. Their point is that it doesn’t matter that students don’t memorise facts, what does matter is that students are now capable of researching information much quicker so that when asked about the countries in Europe, they can in a few minutes find this information and more. What is really important is how the students then use this knowledge once they have found it.

  • 3. mas  |  January 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

    only just spotted the link to this from Matthews blog – I’m guilty for much of that discussion (sorry!)

    thirups comment reinforces my thoughts on that debate and I like the ‘experiment’ in the main post – my randomly memorised fact is a PNF stretch (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation!)

    • 4. alecpatton  |  January 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm

      Hey Mas – I enjoyed the debate on Matthew’s blog, and your contributions to it – it’s good to see substantive debate about education taking place in a comment feed, particularly one which moved so easily between pedagogy and social/political context.

      So what on earth is a PNF stretch?

  • 5. mas  |  January 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I can explain it honest! For some reason the term just stuck in my head & yet very little else from that particular subject did (it relates to muscles and is interesting for warm ups for sports albeit with caution)

    Another example I well remember is my first year at University in a couple of modules on ‘statistical analysis’. The first semester was as tedious as the subject sounds, lots of formulas and mathematics, then at the start of the 2nd semester the lecturer proudly introduced us to some software and informed us that it dispensed with the need for everything we had learned in the previous module! I’m all in favour of getting an understanding for the basis of things, but all I felt at the time was you’ve just wasted hours of my life. Still, I learned a skill – namely to more thoroughly research the content of what I was signing up to!

  • 6. David Price  |  January 13, 2010 at 6:19 am

    The importance of memorisation has been well documented by Fr Guido Sarducci. Though born in the 12th century his observations are are pertinent now as they were then. See this YouTube clip:

  • 7. mas  |  January 13, 2010 at 10:21 am

    very good 🙂

  • 8. thirup  |  January 13, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Surely there are benefits to memorizing… like this chinese student who spent 10 hours aday for 2 years memorizing how recite to the 67,890th decimal place of pi without an error. (it only took him little more than 24 hours) Are you interested in PI memorizing, then join the Pi memorizing enthusiasts here

    • 9. David Price  |  January 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm

      I think I’ll pass on that one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

The Innovation Unit website

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 29 other followers


Twitter Updates

Follow innovation_unit on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: