Knowledge or skills?

//Knowledge or skills?

Skills, knowledge, who cares?  I’m a huge fan of the implementation of Personal Learning and Thinking Skills as part of the English National Curriculum and feel confused and concerned about the current government’s stance on knowledge & skills. see here for an example. Last week I had a really thought provoking conversation on this subject with Cristina Milos (@surreallyno) on Twitter which I think unpicks some of the issues:

  • CM: When teenagers can’t locate a country on the map, “facts” are suddenly important. Preaching “skills” before /or/ vs. “knowledge” is silly.
  • Me: Is it? The fact that Poland is east of Germany tells us little, but the skill of using an atlas is very useful
  • CM: So your idea is that knowledge can be dismissed? In-depth learning can occur without knowing?
  • Me: Not at all. If skills are taught, learners have the means to acquire their own knowledge. Give a man a fish..
  • CM: Moreover, creativity is , essentially, cross-pollination of ideas/knowledge of different areas of knowledge.
  • Me: Of course new ideas allows us to be creative. Hence Twitter. without my skills at accessing and absorbing, ideas are useless
  • CM: The problem appears when the atlas is not there. Don’t you think?
  • Me: No. When ‘atlas’ is absent the skill of knowing where to look is even more vital
  • CM: That is my point: what if you don’t have the means? Knowledge is on/in the carrier, so to speak.
  • Me: Hmm. The only occasions when one wouldn’t have the means to utilise skills of accessing knowledge are exams. Not a good example
  • CM: “Let me Google that” or “Let me find an atlas” does not sound like a good start. I think.
  • Me: So let’s accept this hypothetical: no resources. What about when it’s more complicated than basic geography?
  • Me: What if the knowledge doesn’t exist yet? People need skills to cope with the inevitability of lack of knowledge
  • CM: That is pretty stretched, really. “What if knowledge doesn’t exist?” We live in the Age of Information, from what I know.
  • Me: We do indeed live in the Age of Information. Are you suggesting that we try to remember it all?
  • Me: So you’re saying that all knowledge that we’ll ever need already exists ready to be taught? Now that is pretty stretched!
  • CM: No, I never said that. *check her own tweets*. I just think it is ridiculous to focus solely on skills.
  • Me: Who said anything about ‘solely’. Of course we need to impart some knowledge in order for skills to be acquired
  • CM: No, I am not suggesting that either. But I would love to see students actually knowing things. Not depending on their gadgets.
  • Me: ‘Depends’ is such a pejorative term. We can’t pretend devices don’t exist. So let’s USE them
  • Me: And, they do know stuff. They know things that I’m ignorant of. Question of who decides which knowledge is ‘important’
  • CM: That was my point from the beginning. I just find the dichotomy knowledge vs skills a false one
  • Me: I take your point but when #Gove talks about returning to knowledge based curriculum I get worried and angry.
  • CM: What do you think it is important to know?
  • Me: Today? One thing is how to use your device! Also how to critically evaluate what is presented as knowledge. Imp to know skills
  • CM: I see. I found this interesting as I teach using a constructivism-based approach. It is the rhetoric I have issues with.
  • Me: Surely constructivist approach is one that places value on students making their own meaning. Doesn’t it inherently value skills?
  • CM: Of course. Had you read my blog entries you’d have seen it in action (I have a few inquiry units made “transparent” there). One sample here

And of course Cristina was right, had I read her blog, I’d have had a much better idea of who she is as a teacher. I do urge you to follow the link above to her blog A Teacher’s Wonderings as the work she is doing with her class in Romania is extraordinary.

I really liked the fact that we were able to argue our points and decide, eventually, that we weren’t really in disagreement. We agree that children need to be taught a combination of knowledge and skills in order to makes sense of the world around them.

Where, possibly, we disagree is on the emphasis we place on the importance of each. I believe that by concentrating on imparting my knowledge to a rom full of curious young minds I am possibly doing them a real diservice. Firstly because they are less likely to learn simply from listening to the pearls of wisdom which fall from my mouth but more importantly because of the ‘learned helplessness’ they may experience from being spoonfed knowledge. Clearly anyone who’s read Cristina’s blog knows that she would never take this approach herself. Her teaching is all about empowering children to learn for themselves. Semantics aside, this is what I was referring to as ‘skills’.

I think what I’m trying to say is that the skill of acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and creative ways is worth far more than being given a few (or even lots) of facts. Through the truncated medium of Twitter I paraphrased the old adage that if you, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This could perhaps be paraphrased as “Give a child some facts and they’ll be able to pass a test. Teach them how to think and the world’s their sea food of choice.” So to speak.

I guess my conclusion isn’t that skills are more important than knowledge: rather that both are required for mastery of a subject.

Some useful further reading: Difference between knowledge and skills

Knowledge or Skills – The Way to a Meaningful Degree? An Investigation Into The Importance of Key Skills Within an Undergraduate Degree and The Effect This Has On Student Success

Related posts

Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?
How knowledge is being detached from skills in English
Why the knowledge/skills debate is still worth having



  1. Dee murphy September 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    Joe L would be an interesting case study for Gove. He has the reading and writing skills to get a C in GCSE English (on the whole, a skills based paper). He has the skills to get a B on the English Literature paper. Why did he get an E? Lack of knowledge of Of Mice and Men and the key poems as he didn’t attend lessons? Or he didn’t try? In my book, knowledge, skills and mindset are all equally important for attainment at GCSE. However, for me, the skills Joe left with are more important for his life than his final Eng Lit grade. What I feel I failed with is teaching him to motivate himself to try and to acquire the knowledge needed for him to pass the Lit exam. What would Joe say to this? “Chill out Miss, I got my C in English and Maths. None of my other GCSEs matter”. Then he would probably smile and dance out of my door …

    • learningspy September 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      You’re right Dee – that is exactly what Joe would do!
      Did we fail him? Did he fail himself? Did he, in fact, fail? Interesting to know what becomes of him over the next few years – d’you think he’d be interested in taking part in some action research?

  2. Dee murphy September 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Do you? 😉

  3. oldandrew September 11, 2011 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    Knowledge, at least, is usually fairly easy to describe. In my experience “skills” are usually very vague, generic abilities that are probably unteachable. There aren’t really universal “thinking skills”, “finding out skills”, “learning skills” or “creativity skills”. When people show these abilities they are usually showing their knowledge in a particular area. Generally, when we start being more precise about what skills we want to see, they tend to seem more like knowledge, anyway. Certainly, your example of looking up a capital in an atlas, doesn’t sound to me like a skill. It is an activity, made easier by previously acquired knowledge. Our brains pretty much run on knowledge, and it’s very difficult to describe anything, except for innate instincts, that they do that isn’t a matter of using knowledge.

    • learningspy September 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks Andrew. You always do a good job of bringing me back to earth. With a bump. You’re right about my atlas example but it was spur of the moment.

      You say there aren’t really universal skills. This may be true, but I find it useful to act as if there are. Seems to have an impact on how the little blighters interact with me.

      Just occurred that actually skills/knowledge isn’t really the debate. It’s product/process.

      Cheers, David

  4. Cristina September 13, 2011 at 5:29 am - Reply

    Well, it seems that we did not argue eventually. Even my (more) balanced approach of knowledge and skills is not the issue – I would never “impart” knowledge as a sage on a stage but rather encourage and support students acquire it by themselves.
    Thank you for the conversation, David.

    • learningspy September 13, 2011 at 11:44 am - Reply

      Not at all Andrew, I look forward to ploughing through them all this evening. Thanks

  5. […] or should it be about encouraging them to solve problems? Knowledge or skills? I first wrote about this a month or so back and have really been thinking about it all […]

  6. […] come an awful long way since September 2011 when Cristina Milos took the time to point out that my view on the teaching of knowledge and skills were …. I’m flabbergasted that, as an experienced teacher, I could have been so ignorant. I said at […]

  7. […] used to believe that developing Higher Order Thinking skills was much more important than teaching knowledge. Now I realise that understanding is useless if you can’t remember what it was you […]

  8. […] If we get rid of knowledge from education then what will these children be ‘independently thinking’ about? […]

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