Over the years I’ve thought a lot about whether we should be teaching knowledge or skills. The debate has moved on a lot in recent years and today it’s rare to find anyone arguing against teaching knowledge but there are many who would still advocate for a balance of knowledge and skills. The more I thought about it, the more I’ve realised just how meaningless this distinction is. Knowledge and skills and two sides of the same coin. Or, to attempt another analogy, think about teaching as cooking: ‘knowledge’ is the ingredients, ‘skills’ is (are?) the prepared meal.
This is in no way to suggest that skills are unimportant, they’re patently not. I’d go so far as to say that all teachers want their students to be skilled, just as most of us value eating delicious meals. The only dispute is about how we arrive at our intended destination.
Here’s the thing: you can’t teach skills you can only teach knowledge. That might seem a little extreme but it’s equivalent to saying, you can’t cook a meal with a prepared meal, you can only cook with ingredients.
Think about it. Pick a skill you’d like to teach. Let’s say you want to teach the skill of punctuation, or the skill of multiplying fractions. Or maybe something broader like the skill of reading. Perhaps you prefer something less obviously academic: the skill of juggling or scuba diving. Where would you start?
You might think that you can teach a skill by showing somebody how to do something. Let’s say you decide to teach the skill of punctuation by showing your students how to end a sentence with a full stop. You write your sentence and then at the end add a full stop: look everyone; the full stop shows where you have ended the sentence. You could then go through a few more examples and get children to add their own full stops, first to some pre-prepared examples and then to a few sentences of their own. What will they have learned? Well, perhaps they will now know that at the end of something called a sentence comes a dot which can be made by pressing a pencil onto paper or by tapping a key on a keyboard. Can they punctuate? Of course not. And the reason they can’t is because they don’t know enough. To avoid just scattering dots throughout their writing they would need to know what a sentence is. Many people can’t really explain what a sentence is, they just know one when they see one; it becomes an instinctive, intuitive sense picked up from doing a lots of reading or writing.
But, the lived experience of a teacher might be that they go through something akin to the full stop exercise and some children seem to have picked up the skill of basic punctuation. Proof positive that you can teach a skill? Well, what about the children how haven’t learned the skill? Are they simply less able? That might be the case but I think more often, the children who seem most resistant to this type of teaching are the less advantaged. They failed to acquire the skill not because they’re less able but because they’ve done a lot less reading. The children who seem to acquire skills quickly probably already possessed most of the knowledge they needed to make sense of the instruction and so are able to add new information to existing schemas with relative ease.
If we take instead the example of teaching the skill of juggling, things are likely to go differently. Few if any children possess much prior juggling knowledge but all will have the basic folk physics knowledge of what happens if you throw objects in the air and then try to catch them. Juggling requires you to keep track of at least three objects at once, but anyone who wants to teach juggling is likely to show children how to throw and catch just one object. Children need to know that when juggling three balls, they are actually only throwing one ball at a time, while holding the other two. The ball should pop off your hand rather than rolling off your fingertips. If the ball spins, it has been thrown incorrectly. Balls must travel in a figure 8 pattern, with the hand carrying them from outside to inside, so that they don’t hit each other. This isn’t instinctive and the vast majority of people need it carefully explained, patiently demonstrated and practised multiple times before they get it.
If you continued your juggling tutorial, children would, eventually, know enough to be able to practise. With practise they would start to acquire skill; the more they practise, the more skilled they become. Eventually, with effort and determination, they will have learned the skill of juggling. Of course, some children are likely to be better jugglers than others, but pretty much anyone in possession of the requisite physical attributes can learn to juggle, to drive a car, or to read, punctuate and multiply fractions.
The point is that although we all want students to learn skills we can only teach them knowledge. Different kinds of knowledge may be taught differently: some you can explain, some you have to point out during practice, but as all this knowledge accumulates, it begins to chunk together. At the beginning each item is known inflexibly but through repetition and practice it becomes more flexible the more it coheres with other related items. Skill can only be acquired through practice.
Once a skill has been acquired, we stop being able to see the joins between all the knowledge that went into its creation. The more expert we become, the more invisible and automatic our skills become. Eventually, we may start to believe the skill which for us has become so natural and straightforward can be taught to others as a complete edifice. This is like giving someone a cooked meal and telling them to prepare a meal out the ingredients. It’s easy for another expert to see how this could be done, but very difficult for a novice. The idea that skills can be taught is an illusion born from the curse of knowledge.
This explains a lot of what goes wrong in schools.
Q: Why are so many children poor at multiplying fractions, reading or punctuation?
A: They don’t practice enough.
Q: Why don’t children practise enough?
A: Because they learn early on that they “can’t do it”.
Q: Why do they learn that they “can’t do it”?
A: Because they’ve not had the skill broken down into teachable units of knowledge.
If you want children – all children – to become skilled, teach them the knowledge they need to be able to practise. Skills can only be taught by teaching knowledge.