I am currently reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. The following brief passage summarises, in a nutshell, the role that academic disciplines have to play in education.
A practice ‘is never just a set of technical skills, even when directed towards some unified purpose and even if the exercise of those skills can on occasion be valued or enjoyed for their own sake. What is distinctive in a practice is in part the way in which conceptions of the relevant goods and ends which the technical skills serve – and every practice does require the exercise of technical skills – are transformed and enriched by these extensions of human powers and by that regard for its own internal goods which are partially definitive of each particular practice or type of practice (After Virtue, p.225).’
The problem with ‘outcome-based education’ is that it defines a practice (such as physics, history or playing chess) as a set of technical skills that one needs to achieve to be successful. A glance at most mark-schemes for history will define the use of propositional, factual knowledge in the sense that pupils can use propositional knowledge to ‘deploy’ or ‘support’ particular points.
Now all of this is perfectly fine: MacIntyre tells us that technical skills are a necessary condition of any practice. They are not, however, sufficient. A practice, instead, has to be directed towards some common end (or telos, in Aristotle’s terms). There has to be some sense of a gold standard – some notion of ‘excellence’ – towards which new initiates to a practice (such as physics, or history, or playing chess) can be directed.
MacIntyre suggests, on this line, that
‘To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I can confront and from which I have to learn… (After Virtue, p.226).’
It is those who have already excelled in a particular practice from whom pupils have to learn. In some sense this is why classroom teachers need to be subject specialists; a non-specialist might be able to train pupils in particular technical skills, but cannot provide pupils with a sense of the ‘gold standard’ towards which pupils should direct themselves.
This is also why, at some point, teachers need to begin introducing pupils to works of scholarship written by the very best people in that particular practice. I am currently learning to play the violin, and I am not very good at it, but I listen to experts play and recognise the standard towards which I need to direct myself. In the case of history, this means that teachers should, increasingly, introduce pupils to appropriate works of scholarship that represent the gold standard towards which they should be directed.