The Knowledge / Skills Debate: reflections

On Thursday 18th February, I hosted a debate / discussion with Ruth Ashbee, Nimish Lad & Amy Forrester on Clubhouse. This blog is partly a summary of the discussion and partly my added reflections (particularly things I would have said if I had more time). At the end of the post I explain a little more about what Clubhouse is and why I think it’s an exciting platform for teachers. To anyone who is interested in reading more about the topic, I couldn’t recommend Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘7 Myths About Education’ more highly.

Knowledge vs Skills
I think it would be difficult to find a teacher who disagrees that an important role schools should play is to make pupils more creative, better critical thinkers, more analytical and better collaborators. In other words, all teachers want their pupils to develop skills. The disagreement between teachers lies in the methods used to help achieve these goals. There are at least two points of contention which explain why teachers might disagree:

  1. Skills can/cannot be taught separately to content because skills are/aren’t transferable between domains;
  2. Skills are more/less important than knowledge.

Our understanding of cognition has come a long way in the last few decades. The role of knowledge stored in the long-term memory is now understood to be central to skill development, whereas previously knowledge was understood to be separate from cognitive skills. Being able to analyse a piece of literature does not transfer wholly to being able to analyse scientific conclusions. Creativity in music is not transferred to creativity in solving physics problems. Having a strong foundation of knowledge in a domain explains why we may can demonstrate skilful thinking in that particular domain. Without knowledge, the skills cease to exist.

Calling something a skill is a great descriptor of performance we see in the classroom. If a pupil comes up with a particularly insightful analysis, we may remark that they are ‘analytical’ or ‘creative’. These words or skills describe the performance we see aptly. However these terms do not explain how or why the pupil was able to do this. Unpicking why some pupils demonstrate skills and other do not, reveals a difference in knowledge those pupils possess.

A logical question to follow this might be: so are skills really just knowledge? I would say largely, yes. But a skill also requires manipulation of the knowledge which can be improved by making strong links with other bits of knowledge or by rehearsing the knowledge to embed it. So learning the skill of analysis or creativity isn’t achieved by learning facts alone: one needs to practice manipulating the facts by increasing the nodes or links to other bits of knowledge. Indeed, creativity may be thought of as making links to other bits of knowledge that have not been made before. Would Darwin have arrived at his remarkable ideas without the vast swathes of knowledge he accumulated over the course of his education and travels? I would say certainly not. His book On the Origin of Species is filled with example after example of species, their ecological distribution, adaptations and behaviours. His theories are abstractions sourced from the examples that lived in his long-term memory.

So if skills are not transferrable it means teaching them devoid of content is certainly not possible. This begs the question: which content should be taught? Such decisions are both philosophical and political in nature and I suspect that many public commentators on the topic of curriculum openly discuss the teaching of skills because this goal is so uncontentious. As soon as they are to argue that knowledge must be at the heart of a curriculum they must answer the often uncomfortable questions about what to include (and by extension, what to exclude).

Advocates of a skills curriculum might not mind so much which topics and knowledge are taught. After all, the content is really just a vehicle for developing ‘transferrable skills’. Knowledge-rich curriculum advocates on the other hand, have to have strong opinions about curriculum content. This is not merely because the knowledge is necessary to teach the skills. To think that would imply knowledge is secondary. Knowledge advocates believe the knowledge itself is extremely valuable. Knowledge of the world is a wonderful end goal itself. Even if it were possible to teach skills devoid of content, knowledge advocates would have fierce debates about which knowledge is to be taught because it matters a great deal.

What implications does this have for how teachers teach skills?
The first implication is that the curriculum must contain a clearly defined body of knowledge for pupils to master. To master is to, borrowing from the cognitive science definition of learning, ‘store in the long term memory’. Importantly, this does not mean learning a series of facts in isolation, but creating a well-connected web of knowledge where the links between facts give them meaning. Knowing a plant cell has chloroplasts isn’t a useful fact if it is not connected to the knowledge that plants make their own food and use sunlight to do so, and that the reactions responsible occur inside the chloroplasts of the plant’s cells.

The second implication is that our pedagogy must allow our pupils to learn facts, join them together to make meaning and then practice manipulating those facts. A focus on memory is crucial if learning is to occur. Sometimes this might involve drill, other times it might involve constructing sentences that weaves facts together. Sometimes pupils might practise key spellings, other times they might be observing an expert – their teacher – think out loud while they construct a sentence. Practice and exposure to modelling after clear interactive explanations are given, are hallmarks of good pedagogy in a knowledge-rich curriculum. Importantly, practicing a skill like creativity isn’t about giving pupils a blank page and saying ‘be creative – write a story!’. Rather, it involves teaching an atomised body of knowledge, sequenced to build understanding and practised to fluency. This will involve lots of tasks where pupils are not expected to be ‘creative’ in the conventional sense: they will involve vocabulary acquisition, sentence-level practice, knowledge of a particular style of writing and exposure to dissected exemplars. But these steps will lead to creativity: a blank page will be filled more creatively because the knowledge of how to fill it up can be manipulated.

Are there any transferrable skills at all?
What about literacy? Numeracy? Interpreting teacher feedback?

I would argue these are all domain-bound. Though decoding can be applied to texts of all subjects (therefore is transferrable), comprehension is dependent on background knowledge and is therefore not transferrable. Numeracy does seem transferrable but I would argue that is because the domain has overlaps: solving equations involves a body of knowledge that is shared in mathematics and in science, for example.

Interpreting teacher feedback is also, I would argue, domain specific. A pupil who understands, say, cause and effect in English: ‘Macbeth kills King Duncan because of his ambition to become King’ might misunderstand cause and effect in biology: ‘He exercises because his heart rate increases’.

Study ‘skills’ are an interesting one. There are certainly transferrable elements: ‘use flash cards to revise key bits of knowledge’. But this knowledge only gets you so far: writing good questions to put onto the flashcards requires a good understanding of the knowledge of the topic you wish to revise. Making mind maps are all about organising the… knowledge… that constitute a topic.

The debate and discussion which inspired this post happened on a new social media platform called Clubhouse. Currently the app is only available on iPhones, but it will be released on Androids in the future. How does it work? Anyone can host a ‘room’ and invite listeners in. The listeners can choose to listen to the speakers, or raise their hand to contribute – a bit like a live radio show.

I think this is an excellent platform for teachers to share their thoughts and debate issues in a very human way compared to Twitter. It’s a genuine conversation where you immediately hear responses.

A key strength of the platform is the transience of the conversations. Rooms are not recorded to encourage participation. Speakers are encouraged to share their thoughts even if they don’t feel their thoughts are yet fully formed. Notice the absence of indirect quotes in this blog post: the beauty of Clubhouse is that everyone leaves a room with their own take of the discussion. This post is my take. I don’t want to accidentally misquote someone. The attribution of ideas and opinions from the discussion to their originators are not particularly important. What is important, is that my mind is buzzing with thoughts because of the discussion, and all of the speakers and listeners have generated that buzz collectively. I hope others who joined feel the same!

If you are interested to read more about what people thought of the event, check out the hashtag #KnowledgeSkills. If anyone else wants to blog their take on the event – feel free to do so, and use the hashtag when sharing your post so we can find them easily.

I’ll be hosting another room in the near future (date and time tbc) – the topic will be: ‘Should the curriculum be ‘fun’? The hashtag will be #CurriculumFun. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


3 thoughts on “The Knowledge / Skills Debate: reflections

  1. Pingback: Knowledge AND skills??! – Perfectly imperfect educator

  2. I feel like this is only the first part of the answer to the knowledge/skills debate. I agree that knowledge is important, crucial in fact, and we need to teach a well considered curriculum and that without knowledge, the skills we would like students to undertake are unlikely to happen. However, nobody seems to speak about HOW we teach those skills once the knowledge is there.

    Assuming we have taught the required knowledge and they have their defined schemas, how do we, as teachers, structure activities, lessons, guide students through the process of developing those skills?

    In PE, after developing the required base knowledge, we might us a models based approach – Teaching Games For Understanding, where we teach through a game that is interrupted with challenges, developing tactical awareness and problem solving. Or we might us a constraints led approach where we create challenges to be faced and students need to collaborate to identify ways to overcome these.

    How do we explicitly teach these across the curriculum? What is it that we are explicitly modelling? Can we model the outcomes when they will have potentially different/additional knowledge (or context to the knowledge)? If we want students to come up with new ideas and connections rather than simply replicate what we model, how do we teach them to develop that divergent thinking?

    Is it that we are not yet at this point on our research informed journey? That we know how important knowledge is and we are so focused on this, we have not really begun to consider how we take that next step? It feels like it is more than simply metacognition, that we are looking for people who can go beyond what we can do. Within PE, i get to watch students create things i would struggle to do so and i look on proudly. However, if I simply ask them to replicate what I model, how would they ever go beyond what I am capable of?

    I have tried looking for pedagogical books on ‘thinking’ and I have had very little luck finding the resources i am looking for. I would love to understand the thinking / building of skills / creativity / critical thinking (again, recognising this must come after the prerequisite knowledge), but where do we look for this guidance?

    I would love your recommendations.


  3. Pingback: The road to accountability hell is paved with good CPD intentions – A Psychology Teacher writes

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