Knowledge or skills?
New thoughts about an old debate
Chris Taylor wonders if the ‘skills / knowledge’ divide is really so deep and, if not, what are the implications for learning and teaching?
The photocopier ‘skill test’
At the very beginning of my teaching career, I heard a radio segment lamenting the poor skill set of school leavers and graduates in the UK. The thesis of the report was that schools and universities tended to fill students with useless knowledge and leave them unprepared for employment. One particularly memorable interviewee complained that a recent employee “knew a lot about Jane Austen but couldn’t use a photocopier.” At the time, with no teaching experience and a growing worry that I couldn’t use a photocopier either, I didn’t question what I had heard; but looking back, the statement reveals a number of common misunderstandings.
To be fair to the BBC, the piece probably went on to explore these issues in a much more nuanced way, but I only remember the “photocopier” phrase, and I have since heard and read people discussing skills and knowledge in similar terms.
What is, after all, a skill?
Most people share an instinctive understanding of the semantic difference between a skill and a piece of knowledge: a skill is the ability to do something, whereas knowledge is the awareness of information, something which could be transmitted by a simple written statement. However, difficulties arise when applying examples to these definitions. I would suggest that being able to use a photocopier is actually a series of pieces of knowledge; learning a list of what each button does is not so different to learning the capitals of Europe. On the other hand, the ability to quickly learn and remember how to use a photocopier, the ability to transfer the knowledge of how to use one kind of photocopier and apply it successfully to a different one, and the ability to assess how a photocopier’s functions and design could be improved – are all skills involving cognition, synthesis and evaluation.
As educators, we are in the business of fostering these skills. A school curriculum involving learning how to use photocopiers (apart from being unfeasibly tedious), would no doubt please Mr Employer on the radio, but would be far more knowledge-based than it might appear. Moreover, it would likely be far less useful than knowledge of Jane Austen, not least because the technology the student had learned to use would probably not exist a decade later when they are in the workplace. Far better to teach problem-solving and metacognition so that a future employee will be able to undertake the widest possible range of (as yet unknown) tasks, which they will be required to complete in their career.
Knowledge v skills – a false debate?
‘Knowledge’ and ‘skills’ seem to suggest two wholly separate approaches to curriculum design, and are often, unhelpfully, anchored to political ideologies. A knowledge-based curriculum described as rigorous by supporters; Nick Gibb, the then Schools Minister in 2017 described the Labour national curriculum as “stripped of knowledge content in favour of skills” and called the idea that teachers need not focus on knowledge but should develop creativity or communication “a romantic notion” (Gibb N, 2017). Those who favour a skills-centred curriculum call knowledge acquisition ‘Gradgrindian’ and describe policies which promote it thus: “The knowledge-based approach that has typified England has not been fit for purpose.” (Wyse D and Manyukhina Y, 2019).
More nuanced, please!
A more nuanced approach is needed, which takes account not only of the interdependence of knowledge and skills, but also a clear understanding of what a skill is. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector, puts it in these terms: “Knowledge and skills are intrinsically linked: skill is a performance built on what a person knows… [Skills] are, if you like, the ‘know-how’ in applying the ‘known’.” (Spielman A, 2018). In other words, “we have to move on from ‘knowledge versus skills’… to oppose the two is quite wrong.” (Oates T, 2018)
Skills and techniques in the curriculum
Most schools advertise that their teaching engenders all sorts of skills that are valued by employers and transferrable to “the new”. Moreover, the medium through which these skills are delivered is often irrelevant. A student who can look at a series of historical sources describing the battle of Austerlitz and arrive at a reasoned truth, who can devise the best experiment to test the ammonia content of pondwater, or who can hold the different grammatical variables in a Latin or Mandarin sentence and arrive at the only meaningful translation, will be able to face a range of different challenges within a career, even if they don’t know at secondary school what their future job will be.
What lies between knowledge and skills
There is perhaps a third area between knowledge and skills, which needs careful definition. A range of actions, often described as ‘skills’, that students undertake sit somewhere between pure knowledge and transferrable skills. These are techniques that a student might be required to use in a variety of subjects and aid effective learning, but which, partly because of the fact that they are not exclusively “owned” by one subject, are sometimes not taught systematically – actions such as constructing an essay, research, delivering a presentation, and memorising lists and facts. These are not skills transferrable to almost anything, in the way that, say, “thinking critically” is, but they are important elements of secondary education nonetheless.
Relying on osmosis
Teachers can be guilty of assuming that students pick up these techniques by osmosis, or that simply setting tasks involving these techniques will always result in improvement. Schools need to consider auditing current provision for the development of these techniques, and then an evaluation of whether change needs to be made – for example, taking a mapped approach with different subjects responsible for different techniques, or delivery in ring-fenced study skills lessons or via pastoral tutors. Hardly rocket science perhaps, but it is a common refrain of both students and parents, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not: “We’ve been told to make notes, but we don’t know how.”
Chris Taylor, is Head of Classics at Sevenoaks School
For more about this debate, see Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning:
All images kindly provided by Sevenoaks School
Gibb N: “The importance of knowledge-based education”, speech given to the Association of Schools and College Leaders, October 2019, published by the DfE 2019
Oates, T: “Skills versus Knowledge: A curriculum debate that matters – and one which we need to reject”, ‘Impact’ magazine, Chartered College of Teaching, September 2019
Spileman, A: “Knowledge or Skills: What is the real substance of education?” taken from Fenews.co.uk, September 2018
Wyse D and Manyukhina Y, “What next for the Curriculum”, British Educational Research Association blog bera.ac.uk, April 2019