Which Knowledge; Which Skills?

There has been a hefty onslaught recently against the deliberate teaching of skills by those in favour of a knowledge-based curriculum. Knowledge is essential, and it seems to me an unassailable argument that teaching only skills to the exclusion of knowledge is a mistake, but that’s not something I’ve witnessed in my career, a point made by several people here, here and here. If you’ve been following the trend, or even if you haven’t, then there’s been plenty written that covers the basic points of the debate. However, the argument that knowledge should be favoured to the exclusion of skills, seems to be gaining momentum and I’m thinking this is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Either that, or it’s the result of an unjustified alignment of teaching knowledge with one pedagogy and teaching skills with another. A recent post from Joe Kirby has galvanised me to join the fray.

The first issue for me is the question of what is meant, both by ‘knowledge’ and by ‘skills’. If you want to achieve a clear dichotomy then knowledge can be seen as factual information e.g. the universe is 13.8 billion years old; universal indicator is green in a neutral solution; the function of the lungs is to remove CO2 and increase O2 in the blood etc. and you can use ‘skills’ to refer to non-cognitive skills such as the ability to work effectively in a group, to evaluate, presentation skills etc.

If you start with either of these definitions then, if you want to denigrate a knowledge-based curriculum you can argue that this is all about making children learn large numbers of facts with the implication that they will end up with masses of knowledge with which they can do little, and if it’s skills-based that you want to shoot down with flaming arrows then it’s not difficult to show that trying to teach these skills directly, or using a trivial context which pupils already know all about to avoid the need for new knowledge, is going to be ineffective, or will widen the gap, dumb down etc.

Alternatively there is a more subtle way to look at this. The reason why accumulation of facts can be supported is that, in the hands of any vaguely competent teacher, facts are not unconnected, and with masses of knowledge pupils can do all sorts of sophisticated things, like make an evidence-based argument for the Big Bang theory, describe the general features of acid-base reactions and predict the salts produced, or identify the similarities and differences between the respiratory systems of a range of animals. And the reason that teaching skills can be defended is that, firstly, within each curriculum area there are lots of skills that are crucial e.g. how to lay out a results table for a new investigation, how to manipulate a burette to get a titration accurate to 0.5 ml, how to evaluate conflicting evidence to draw an appropriate conclusion, and secondly, there is evidence that meta-cognitive programmes have a high effect-size, so whilst trying to teach critical-thinking skills does not seem to be very effective, teaching study skills can be.

And, for me, somewhere in the middle it becomes increasingly hard to decide the extent to which a skill is actually an accumulation of integrated facts and recall of experience of similar examples i.e. knowledge. The champions of knowledge-based teaching would, I think, mostly argue exactly this point – that to learn a skill you have to accumulate knowledge. To go back to my titration example, the skill starts with facts (it is possible to be accurate to +/- 0.5 ml, your eye must be level with the numbers when reading the scale), followed by learning what this looks like, then being able to recall the feel of more or less stiff taps, and knowing how to adjust them, and that they leak if they are loosened too far, and finally repeated practice drives into the long-term memory knowledge of all the little subtle things about when to go fast and when slow and what different indicators look like in different solutions…

I don’t think it matters much whether this is a skill, or an accumulation of knowledge. Old Andrew makes the distinction between the sort of skills I’m talking about, and generic skills which might be taught in a context-free way but even here I think teachers would be making a choice about the context. It may be a mistake to teach critical-thinking skills, or essay-writing skills in a knowledge-lite context but you can’t teach science, or history, or English without developing these skills, in context, in your students, can you?

So in the end, I’m with LeadingLearner – in a different jungle. What matters to me is deciding how much of the curriculum is going to be recall knowledge (and which knowledge it should be), how much is going to be about being able to do sophisticated things with this knowledge (and what are the most important sophisticated things), how much is going to require pupils to apply general principles in new contexts (like drawing up that results table), and how much (if any) is going to be about practical skills. I would like to see all of the above in the new science GCSE – when we finally get it. And then we should be starting the same debate for Beyond 2020, not a ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate but a ‘which knowledge; which skills’ debate.

2 thoughts on “Which Knowledge; Which Skills?

  1. I really don’t see the point of playing around with the words used to describe the debate if it doesn’t actually clarify what the debate is about.

    Some people believe that knowledge is such a vital part of thinking that, if we want students to have a developed intellect, then we should build a curriculum around the knowledge students have, and around increasing their fluency with that knowledge. The structure of that knowledge will be vital, and knowing the shape of existing academic disciplines, and what is regarded as a developed intellect within one’s culture, will be vital to determining the shape of the curriculum. It will require teachers who know the important knowledge well. It will require that communication is a key part of pedagogy and that students practise recalling what they have been taught. It will allow for a certain precision in talking about the aims of education, and its outcomes.

    Others believe that knowledge is less important. They may claim it is transitory, insecure, tedious, irrelevant or that it is unnecessary to be able to recall it rather than find it, or practise to the point of fluency with it. While they may not reject knowledge entirely, they might well give greater priority to more general dispositions (e.g. resilience, motivation, happiness) or more generic ways of treating knowledge (e.g. creativity, study skills, learning to learn). They may not care to see knowledge well defined, preferring “themes” to academic disciplines, or broad inquiries to direct study of a subject. They will emphasise novelty, and students’ own interests rather than the passing on of a settled tradition (and may adopt ideologies that challenge such traditions). This will also reshape pedagogy, as the teachers’ grasp of knowledge and its structure might well be considered a less urgent priority than being able to motivate students, or facilitating students’ own inquiries. Direct communication of subject knowledge be considered of secondary importance to ensuring students engage in certain types of activity. Processes may become more important than outcomes, and a lot of emphasis will be given to determining good and bad varieties of “knowing” in order to avoid learning too much knowledge. So, for instance, a clear line will be drawn between knowing facts, and understanding, and what is “relevant” to the individual learner will become more important than what is valued within a wider (academic) culture.

    Now these are clearly different positions, and choices will need to be made between them. We can all put ourselves in the middle by pretending one side is only interested in knowing and one side only interested in doing and observing that neither extreme is desirable. That does not actually move anything on. Both positions lead to contradictory claims about the purposes, methods and nature of education, not all of which allow for a retreat into a safe middle position.

  2. Yes, teachingbattleground, these are different positions that you describe, but the problem I have is that I think that the debate ought to be about what’s in the curriculum, not whether it should be knowledge-based or skills-based, even given the clarity you bring to the two positions, because I still think there are different ways these positions can be interpreted. You see, I want to start Y7 first lesson with lighting a Bunsen burner safely; I want to spend a decent bit of time teaching Y9 how to decide if a noisy data set shows correlation or not; and I want to teach the students starting A-Level some strategies for handling the massive leap in standards from GCSE. These feel like skills to me, although I think I argued in my post that they might really be accumulated knowledge. But I can’t tell, from your position or that of anyone else, whether any or all of these have a place in a knowledge-based curriculum. If not, there may be a valid argument for leaving them out, and if so, then is that not a middle position? Either way, at this concrete level I can see the point of the debate because it’s a debate about what we want young people to learn. Maybe this makes me a supporter of knowledge-based by default. I suspect that the curriculum I would write would be knowledge-based; I think the Science GCSEs and A-Levels always have been; I prefer the new KS3 NC for Science to the old one. But I don’t want decisions about what to teach to be delineated by some particular ideology. I don’t want to be asking whether something is important knowledge – just whether it’s important.

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