Why skills versus knowledge is a futile debate

Pitting knowledge and skills-based lessons against each other is pointless – both can work in harmony, like Lennon and McCartney, says Andy Bayfield

Andy Bayfield

Skills versus knowledge: A debate that education should put to bed

We live in a time of little subtlety or nuance; you either have to be for something or against it.

Education has in many cases followed suit, and perhaps nowhere is this lack of sophistication seen more than the debate around teaching knowledge and skills.

Skills versus knowledge: the two contenders

The rough argument goes as follows. In one corner, the teaching of knowledge sees students as empty vessels who sit passively as knowledge is “poured” in by the all-knowing teacher.

This conjures visions of the classrooms from a Dickens novel, with rows of students staring up at a school master who chants timetables for them to memorise.

In the other corner, proponents of the teaching of skills see students as architects of their own learning. The image of this is the vibrant classroom, where students are active and have the “freedom” to think.

Rather than remembering dry timelines, they learn critical understanding to decide whether Henry VIII was a good king or not, or to try to imagine the final words of Anne Boleyn.

Watching the change

My own schooling came during a pivotal point in this debate, falling under Blair’s government of the early 2000s.

It was an interesting time to be educated because the skills phenomenon was gaining momentum, but not yet fully embedded; I would travel from a French class where chanting “Je ne sais pas” was the pinnacle of student involvement, to a funky geography lesson where we made papier mache shopping malls.

From those transitional times, the teaching of skills emerged in the early 2010s as the height of educational fashion, and we all scrambled to create lessons that made skills paramount. I forget how many English lessons I taught where I reflected on how imaginative my planning was, but also how little students learned about the text.

And so we come to today where, broadly speaking, teaching knowledge is seen as Bad and teaching skills as Good. Which is a little like saying a football team should only have strikers and no goalkeeper, or a builder should only focus on fittings and not cement.

Misinterpreting trailblazing ideas

It was not supposed to be this way. The godfather of skills-based teaching was the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a trailblazer who foresaw many of the problems with teaching knowledge: that knowledge can struggle to be applied in practice, that it depends mostly on the knowledge giver, and that it is really boring, basically.

But what Rousseau was not able to do, because the teaching of skills was not yet a paradigm, was to see how knowledge works with the teaching of skill. He was ahead of his time, and education had not yet caught up.

Yet many teachers misinterpret Rousseau and wage war against the teaching of, for example, the use of apostrophes because “it is boring” and “not very inspiring”.

Making both work together

I used to be one of those teachers, looking down on my more experienced colleagues, until I realised my students’ essays were good rather than great, and what was missing was not creativity or analysis, but technical accuracy.

So I started to infuse specific grammar activities into the skills-based learning that we all value. The outcome was essays that were elevated by a proper command of grammar and punctuation that augmented the arguments being made. Skills and knowledge taught together and delivering better outcomes – who would have thought it?

But if we don't do this and just focus on skills, what does the classroom look like?

Frameworks for success

Let us go back to the student learning about the Tudors. Imagine the teacher has set a skills-based activity where the class has to design a castle for Henry VIII. Without the knowledge of the time in which he lived and the facts of his life that forged his character, how can that lesson be anything but a fun piece of art and design, but not much history?

Maths is a better example because the learning is more sequential and incremental: you need to know one thing to do the next thing, meaning the skill can only be taught once the knowledge is embedded.

English is harder because it lacks the knowledge required of maths or science and is mainly built around skills that are not as incremental: you can teach similes to a Year 5 or a Year 13.

This means terrible skill-based English lessons are a real danger. The mistake is to forget you do need to know some quotes from Macbeth to effectively answer the question “Was Macbeth an effective leader?”

What Lennon and McCartney can teach us

There are many types of poor lessons. A poor lesson that revolves too much around knowledge is likely ponderous and fails to connect the knowledge with the student.

A poor skills lesson can be, frankly, a mess; paint and glue, and students all over the room having fun, but with no understanding of why they are building Henry’s castle, nor what it is teaching them.

I’d argue a poor knowledge lesson is less damaging than a poor skills one.

But it should not be one or the other. Let us remove ourselves from this extremism and realise we do not have to be for or against, that Lennon excelled because of the presence of McCartney and vice-versa, and that balance is the key to nearly everything that is effective in teaching – as it is in life.

Andy Bayfield is the teaching and learning leader at an international school in Malaysia

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