A 5-Minute Guide to: Knowledge vs Skills

The relationship between knowledge and skills

Any debate about whether skills are more important than knowledge – or vice versa – is a false one. Both are equally important.

We teach students knowledge so that they can ‘do things’ with it. The catch-all term for ‘do things’ is ‘skill’. ‘Describe’, ‘explain’, ‘predict’, ‘evaluate’ – these are all skills because they are all things that students do with the knowledge they are taught. In that sense, knowledge and skills are really two sides of the same coin. While for the purposes of discussion it can be helpful to draw a distinction between them, we should keep in mind that this distinction is actually artificial.

When performing a skill, you are applying specific knowledge of things you know about (declarative knowledge) or how to do (procedural knowledge). Skills are knowledge in action. They emerge from knowledge:

We’re not dealing with a ‘chicken or egg’ situation that is up for debate: the fact is, specific knowledge must be taught before specific skills can be developed.

For example, if we want students to be able to debate the causes of climate change (a skill), they first need to learn specific declarative knowledge about the causes of climate change. If we want them to be able to perform a particular dance (a different skill), they first need to learn specific procedural knowledge about this dance.

With this in mind, it doesn’t make sense to be arguing for a ‘skills-based curriculum’ or against a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’. All curricula are knowledge-based, skills-orientated.

‘Skills-based’ or ‘knowledge-based’ subjects

For this reason, it is a mistake to think that some subjects are ‘skills- based’. Yes, there are subjects that draw more on procedural knowledge than declarative, like PE, and subjects that draw more on declarative knowledge than procedural, like history. Regardless, knowledge is the bedrock of all subjectsAll subjects are knowledge-based.

The medium vs the message delusion

Misunderstandings about the relationship between knowledge and skills typically leads to an over-emphasis on skills in the curriculum. This is what we see in schools that claim to have ‘skills-based’ curricula.

In schools like this, it is common to see students being asked to ‘do things’ before they have the necessary knowledge to do them. For example, they are asked to write a newspaper article or make a PowerPoint presentation, without having specific knowledge to write about or present. As a result, their articles and presentations lack substance, or are filled with information copied from elsewhere. A focus on skills at the expense of knowledge leads to students ‘being busy’, but not in a way that helps them to learn.

If students are being asked to write an article or make a presentation to apply knowledge they have learned, this would likely be a worthwhile activity. It would be an opportunity for students to simultaneously consolidate and demonstrate the knowledge they have learned. Rather than write an article or make a presentation for the sake of it, because it seemed like a ‘fun’ thing to do, the activity would have real value, pulling knowledge together in a coherent way. It would help evidence understanding. But clearly, for this to be the case, students would first need to have learned specific knowledge.

The medium vs the message

Newspaper articles, PowerPoint presentations and all related activities are the medium to deliver a message. The medium usually has little value in itself. It is the message that is most important.

Yes, being able to write and create presentations matters. And yes, we do need to teach students how to do such things. However, once this is done, writing and creating presentations are simply vehicles to communicate knowledge and understanding. The more knowledge students have, the more likely it is that they will surprise and amaze us with what they write and create as a synthesis of this. The less they have, the more likely it is that we will simply be keeping them occupied.

Dylan Wiliam captures this well:

The big mistake we have made… is to assume that if we want students to be able to think, then our curriculum should give our students lots of practice in thinking. This is a mistake because what our students need is more to think with.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion 2: Teaching Strikes Back by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational.

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