Teaching knowledge is teaching skill

//Teaching knowledge is teaching skill

We can call everything stored in our long-term memories knowledge. All knowledge is biological – stored in the organic substance of our brains – and everything stored biologically is knowledge. If you call some of the stuff that occupies our minds anything other than knowledge then you have to explain how it would be stored. This is hard to do without getting into debates about ‘ether’ or some other insubstantial stuff. Occam’s razor assures us that pursuing such a line of reasoning is both unnecessary and likely to be counter-productive.

But then, what of the common sense observation that knowledge and understanding are different? That wisdom is distinct from skill? Surely it makes sense to create separate categories for each of these things that I’m grouping together as knowledge? Well yes, of course it does. I can group Cheddar, Mozzarella and Roquefort together as cheese but they each look and taste distinctively different. There are times when it makes sense to specify and times when it makes sense to group together. So, we can accept that factual knowledge, skill, wisdom and anything else you might care to speculate about are – at the same time – all knowledge and all different.

But what’s the point? Why I am so keen to group all these disparate entities together? There are two broad reasons:

  1. If all these things are knowledge then they all have a place within a knowledge-rich curriculum. Claiming that a knowledge-rich curriculum is an attempt to just teach factual knowledge is absurd. I’m not even sure how that would be possible.
  2. Even if teaching different categories of knowledge separately is possible, it’s not desirable.

Let’s consider those abstract propositions by considering a practical example. Let’s say I want to teach a class of Year 8 students to write an essay about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. What would I need to include? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  1. Knowledge of the play
  2. Knowledge of the play’s context
  3. Knowledge of literary techniques
  4. Knowledge of vocabulary in the play
  5. Knowledge of structure and syntax
  6. Knowledge of critical style
  7. Knowledge of how to select and present evidence
  8. Knowledge of how to pursue a line of argument

I’m sure you can think of other items to add to this list. Other types of knowledge may operate on the items in this list: what happened last time a student tried to write an essay; how they feel about the play, Shakespeare, literature, school. And so on. While I ought to allow for these types of knowledge I probably don’t want to teach them.

One approach to my list would be to group the first five items together and teach them differently to the last three. This, I think, happens a lot. Children learn bits and bobs about the subject they are to write about and then they asked to practice writing about them. This is because we see the first five items as factual knowledge and the last three as elements of the skill of writing. What happens when you try to teach skill separately? Cargo cult writing.

Consider this task and response:

The student knows something about the play and they know something about how to write an essay, but the two are not well-integrated. Students get better at what they practise, but what they’re practising is, often, not very good. Therefore they get better at writing cargo cult essays. This is, I think, the consequence of prioritising the teaching of skill.

If instead we integrated factual knowledge from the first 5 items with procedural knowledge from the last 3, we might end up with something different. Here’s one, fairly narrow example of how that sort of practice might work:

By integrating factual knowledge with procedural knowledge we encourage children to write something a little more like this:

My point is this: despite there being different kinds of knowledge, it makes little sense to teach them in isolation. This will, I believe, apply to other domains of knowledge as much as it does to English literature. If our aim is for students to master as much the domains we teach as is reasonable and possible, then we should aim to teach knowledge in its broadest and most expansive sense. This gets to the heart of what a knowledge-rich curriculum should be.

2019-01-29T08:58:55+00:00June 17th, 2018|curriculum|


  1. chrismwparsons June 17, 2018 at 8:25 am - Reply

    So, if everything taught and learned is knowledge, what’s the clearest definition of a “knowledge-rich” curriculum…?

    • David Didau June 17, 2018 at 9:27 am - Reply

      That which contains the most powerful, culturally rich knowledge.

      • chrismwparsons June 19, 2018 at 2:41 pm - Reply

        Would it possibly be better to call it a “Rich Knowledge” (or Power Knowledgeable) curriculum then…? If it’s the kind of knowledge rather than the presence of it per se, which makes the approach distinctive…?

        • chrismwparsons June 19, 2018 at 2:43 pm - Reply

          *Power Knowledge

          • Michael pye June 23, 2018 at 5:13 pm

            That would be quickly misunderstood and reinterpreted.

            The point is that everything is knowledge but that transfer from context is usually weak. We learn an idea or fact then how it can be challenged, interpreted or contrasted and then move onto another. By layering up knowledge we begin to have measurable (though still weak) transfer to new contexts. More importantly we have an idea and respect for how long this new learning will take. (We can obviously go back and cross bridge our learning which helps recap and systemise our thinking)

            By focusing on knowledge which is well respected we facilitate our students cultural understanding (and communication abilities) while minimising errors (because corrections are more available).

            The politisisation of education still occurs only now it is shifted more to the curriculum level rather then at the pedagogical level. (Were it has every right to exist).

            The split between the different types of knowledge is a prequisite for a skills based curriculum or a higher order Blooms taxonomy approach. It is not necessary in a knowledge based one, instead specific arguments or named techniques are used as we progress along a stepless gradient of understanding.

            Not sure how well I have made my point Chris. Will be interesting to see your response.

        • David Didau June 24, 2018 at 6:39 am - Reply

          You want to change knowledge-rich to rich knowledge? Be my guest, although I can’t really see the point. As for using the term ‘power knowledge’ it sounds faintly ridiculous 🙂

          • chrismwparsons June 24, 2018 at 8:26 am

            Thank you David and Michael – yes – ‘Power Knowledge’ does sound at the very least cheesy, and the Critical Pedagogy theorists would have a field-day with it. But then they already do with phrases such as “the most powerful, culturally rich knowledge”.

            I like your phrase “knowledge which is well respected” Michael – (perhaps “widely well respected” would further avoid some quibbles – though tilts against the way we use cultural currency to maintain the status quo in favour of the powerful would still persist – and – whilst I don’t support the extreme voices on this, perhaps such extremes are always necessary to help the mainstream police its integrity, and perhaps gradually nudge it forward).

            I particularly like your comments about the layering of knowledge as well Michael, and this is where my probing has its roots: Is the key thing the KIND of knowledge being focused on, or the DENSITY of knowledge being applied? If the first then ‘Rich Knowledge’; if the second, ‘Knowledge-Rich’. Of course, I think the point is to attempt both, and hence knowledge-rich is as good a label as any

            What I do think though, is that simple labels such as ‘Knowledge-based’ vs ‘Skills-based’, are effectively being defined out of existence in this blog post. Perhaps one day we’ll be instead talking about ‘Rich vs Light’ approaches to curriculum and pedagogy…?

  2. jamesisaylestonebulldogs June 17, 2018 at 8:28 am - Reply

    This is so true. Many students write cargo cult essays: a list of what they know without any linking or analysis of what they know. They are unable to synthesize.

  3. Jason Wade June 17, 2018 at 9:05 am - Reply

    A great post, David.

    To clarify, are you making the case here for grammar to be taught contextually? (I’m thinking of your ‘despite’ example.)

    And if so, is there a potential CLT conflict? Perhaps its because I work with primary aged students, but teaching them to use ‘despite’ (or similar) correctly at the same time as teaching challenging content is likely to overload struggling writers. My approach would be to teach the technique with familiar content initially. Hochman, suggests the same, at least for what she terms Level 1 students: ‘To introduce this idea [the use of because, but, so], start with a simple stem that is not based in the content you’re teaching…’ (p41).

    As soon as they are able to do that, then I’d then have students practice application from that point onwards through challenging curriculum content in the way that you’ve described.

    Hopefully, I’m not misrepresenting you here.

    • David Didau June 17, 2018 at 9:36 am - Reply

      I would say that this kind of teaching isolates grammatical concepts – it decontextualises and then adds in context. This should ensure that extraneous cognitive load is minimised. The mistake would be to think that you could teach anything “at the same time” as something else. You teach each in sequence and then practise both together.
      1) Teach the item of knowledge you want students to know.
      2) Teach the knowledge of how to manipulate that item (if it helps to show how a structure can be filled with more familiar material, go right ahead – but if the content you’ve just taught is unfamiliar maybe you haven’t taught it well enough?)
      3) Combine and practise

      Does that make sense?

      • Jason Wade June 17, 2018 at 3:34 pm - Reply

        Thank you for the clarification. It makes sense; we’re on the same page.

  4. Bivhab Sarker August 21, 2018 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    Practice makes a man perfect. If any one tried hard and hard then he or she have will gain. It will be great work to teach the student year of age 8. Essay writing for play and after writing the play is not easy.

    Before writing students have to gather some knowledge about the topic. The students year of age 8 do not familiar with cargo cult essays and they do not synthesize the essays properly. For this reason they need to practice more and more.

    A strong teacher only can give them proper knowledge about essay writing and teach them how to play. It is good decision to teach the students. The students must be learn the grammar properly before writing. As a result without proper essay it will not possible to play that essay. So practice and meaningful sentence making is essential for cargo cult essays.

    Finally practice, learning grammar properly and gather more knowledge about cargo cult essays are most noteworthy.

  5. Lara Kay January 28, 2019 at 6:30 pm - Reply

    Hello! I can’t see the images on this no matter what browser I use! I’d like to use this as stimulus for CPD! Thank you 🙂

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