Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

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