Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

Gnome heads

Back when I was a lowly trainee teacher I engaged in a debate with someone high up in the local authority after a training session. They were arguing that ‘skills’ are all we need to teach young people. I argued (as a History teacher) that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, however, I realise that we were both wrong.

This post by Oliver Quinlan about A.C. Grayling’s presentation at the recent Education Festival got me thinking. Especially this bit:

What we should be looking for is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of understanding. Many schools recognise that theory of knowledge and learning about learning are supportive of the rest of the curriculum. Grayling feels that this should be at the centre of the curriculum, not as an added extra.

And then yesterday, Tim Riches tweeted me the link to this post, pointing out how scary it is that the government are preventing people from talking about ‘skills’ in a curriculum review:

Among the wilder, though double-sourced by me, rumours I’ve heard about the curriculum review were that the word “skills” was banned from any documents by ministers, simply because they wanted to emphasise “knowledge”. While I am not going to get into the knowledge versus skills debate here, suffice it to say that most university prospectuses stress the importance of both.

But then I realised. What we should be developing in young people are capacities. Skills and knowledge flow from these.

It’s what employers look for when hiring people. It’s why we have phrases like “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” We recognise that certain people have greater capacities in certain areas than others.

I look forward to seeing an education system that promotes capacities.

(oh, and when we get there, we should award badges) 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA amy_b


9 thoughts on “Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

  1. Great post! Who knows what the skills the children in education (especially Primary) will need by the time they leave school! We need to make sure that the future work force can cope with whatever the ever changing world throws at them! 

  2. Moar great grist. As per usual.

    Adding attitudes to my mix Doug. Technology is an attitude. I sit comfortably with that as a mandatory core. Skills, capacity and deep inderstanding follow more easily when technology is grounded in our highly variable attitudinal contexts. Attitudes also support the neccessary, sometimes painful, cracks and ultimately allows the fish to not see the water. It just is. Nothing special, it just is.

  3. I would add experiences – sitting in a lecture room listening to some old codger blether on used to be a good way of transmitting information but now we have YouTube

  4. I agree Doug. Skills should not be ignored. Interestingly, the ICT National Strategy of a decade ago or more placed emphasis on skills and *capabilities*. Capabilities is not that different to capacities you mentiom in this post. The root being understanding rather than knowledge. What tool to use for any given problem. Is it possible that practitioners back then were ahead of the curve?

  5. Although ‘capacities’ seem a bit abstract, it does align with a lot of the contemporary talk from the likes of Michael Wesch, et al, around being able to respond to/in unfamiliar situations, problem solve, etc, etc. 

    However, that can’t be the goal in place of skills and understanding, which we still have to teach/foster. In fact, I think Understanding is a pre-requisite for Skill (there’s no point being able to serve a shuttlecock into a particular region of the court, or hit the ball with a particular part of the foot, if you don’t know why should do it). The same applies to all ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’ (which was a key term I remember from school teaching all those years back!).

    Rightly or wrongly, these are ‘comfortable’ (for want of a better word) because our education system and employers can measure them through traditional evidence and assessment. Capacities are perhaps a bit different I think?

  6. (a gardening analogy for education) 4 year olds enter formal education (in general) as inquisitive and lively individuals – perfect growing conditions for learning (before we kill this). Perhaps, instead of labelling skills, knowledge and capabilities, we should be  considering the twin challenges of what topics our learner should be exposed to and how we can maximise the growing/learning conditions that enable learning.  The crucial element is learners’ motivation that is intrinsic until it is killed by environmental factors.  Assessment / badges are extrinsic and useful as motivators but persuasion and engagement are more important IMHO for the sometimes  limited influence that educators can exert.

    • I completely agree that examining the learning environment to encourage curiosity and grow inquisitiveness is key. I think the other part of the question too is then figuring out a way to evaluate whether or not that environment works in enabling learning. How can we measure that learning in order to improve our practices?

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