I know therefore I can

10th January 2014 at 00:00
Should we be teaching knowledge or skills? This is a well-trodden battleground for everyone in education, but teachers must engage in the debate or practice in a state of unconsciousness, argues Tom Bennett

The battle of knowledge versus skills grinds on. But, as any sensible teacher knows, it's a false dichotomy - we all teach both.

Knowledge is low-level thinking, right? Wrong. This is a very live, very powerful debate. Like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, its greatest trick was to convince people it didn't exist. In reality, it's central to many fundamental educational questions.

The reason why this is still important is that the debate inspires very real differences in education; like ocean currents, they appear to be invisible, but they're there. Advocates of skills teaching often laud the universality of their application; there are skills of discernment, analysis and scrutiny that transcend traditional subject domains. As such, they frequently champion the teaching of creativity, or a multidisciplinary approach to subject teaching - joint projects between art, history and geography, for example. They also promote classes in thinking skills, learning to learn, independent learning and group work on the grounds that skills acquired in one subject will be applicable in others.

The danger here, as commentators such as teacher Joe Kirby have pointed out, is opportunity cost. If student tasks are centred on skill acquisition, and skills cannot actually be easily obtained in this way, then time, the most precious of resources, is lost. And the impact of that is felt disproportionately by the poor, who cannot afford to waste the opportunities that education affords.

The truth is that skills are based entirely on knowledge; they are the appropriate demonstration of knowledge. There is no false dichotomy here. There is no "skills or knowledge". Skills are knowledge in context.

Many abilities are called skills, such as analysis, creative thinking and so on, but these faculties are nothing without knowledge. I ask my students to explain why the Reformation happened. There is simply no way they can do this, transferable skills or not, without prior knowledge. Analysis is inseparable from content and, in this example, it is simply a demonstration of appropriately recalled knowledge, or comprehension.

I teach philosophy and have a master's degree in the subject. I would consider myself to be in the sixth decile of expertise, an expert with a fraud complex, perhaps. If I encounter an unfamiliar philosophical concept, I can usually get the gist of it pretty quickly by discerning the context and ancestry of its tenets - where it stands in terms of metaphysical, ontological or epistemological claims, for instance. I know what the bricks look like and how they slot together. And I know about the bricks because I spent an apprenticeship in the lecture rooms of Glasgow, fetching tartan proposition paint and asking for long ethical stands. I understand the unfamiliar from inductive inferences, and I construct these inferences only from prior experience.

Knowledge attracts other pieces of knowledge like a magnet. As expertise grows around a core, relevant information is captured by its gravity until masters of any field can bring almost any fragment of wisdom into the orbit of their understanding.

This is where learning and behaviour often intersect profitably for the classroom practitioner. Most teachers will be familiar with the nearly unreachable, unteachable student who is miles behind their peers in core knowledge. It's the child with a reading age of 5 whose eyes swim as they're expected to digest Coriolanus. It's the unlovely student, parachuted into school from a year at a pupil referral unit, who lacks the ability to multiply and is asked to sit a paper in algebra. Knowledge, like genius, loves company, but ignorance is the pain that fights its own remedy.

In books such as Cultural Literacy and The Knowledge Deficit, American educationalist ED Hirsch argues that knowledge needs to be explicitly at the heart of any curriculum. Now his Core Knowledge curriculum is making its way across the Atlantic. In England, education secretary Michael Gove has made no attempt to disguise his admiration of Hirsch, nor his belief in the importance of fact-based syllabuses. Gove's admiration is exemplified by the revised national curriculum, which caused controversy last year with its emphasis on linear historical chronology and more traditional approaches to literacy and maths.

We see this debate everywhere in teaching: in enquiry-led science; in reform maths; in phonics versus whole-language instruction. Many believe the debate is a false dichotomy. This is not the case. Pretending that the distinction between knowledge and skills isn't important simply allows teachers to carry on with an often thin understanding of what they are teaching and why.

Content is king

"Since we cannot know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to teach it in advance," said John Holt, the American educator who believed that the skills of learning were more important than the content that drives it, given that content is so vulnerable to the instability of innovation. "Instead, we should turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned."

We see similar sentiments in 2006's YouTube clickbait Shift Happens, which claims, among other things, that human knowledge is superseded every year and is therefore presumably dispensable.

Can we even distinguish skills from the content from which they are comprised? David Hume, the Scottish empiricist philosopher, would say not. He proposed that for any statement about the world to be meaningful, it had to be traced back to experience. In other words, there is no such thing as a "skill"; rather, skill would be the word we would use retrospectively for the observed and habitual use of content in a way that we regard as skilful. You might as easily try to directly teach someone to love. In this model, skill could be best described as a habit.

At the heart of Holt's reasoning, and the reasoning of those who agree with the "learning to learn" movement, is the idea that learning is a skill that can itself be learned, and that some are better at than others. But what does it mean to say that some people are more skilled at learning than others? It's the children who already know how to read and write who appreciate and race through subsequent exposure to literature.

What is skill?

Knowledge assists the acquisition of subsequent knowledge, something that Hirsch has called the "Matthew effect" in reference to a passage in the scriptures: "Whoever has will be given more." This answers those who ask how we can teach children to apply learned skills in unfamiliar arenas: by inductive inference, by comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar and by making educated guesses based on past experience. But without past experience, guesses become uneducated speculation.

Many commentators have looked to the so-called "Massachusetts miracle", where the US state outperforms just about every other state on many success metrics in progression and achievement. Why? Some claim that it is because it follows Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum.

Daisy Christodoulou, an educationalist and research and development director at UK academy chain Ark, references Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, who said that in order to become a highly skilled chess player, one needed "practice - thousands of hours of practice...what is needed is to build up in long-term memory a vast repertoire of patterns and associated plausible moves". Even in an area so closely associated with skill, expertise can be seen as the accumulation of thousands of packets of data, which through repeated access become available for subsequent reference. All that skill represents in this arena is domain-specific knowledge. We know it's domain-specific because the Pentagon doesn't recruit chess grandmasters to run military campaigns in Iraq.

Of course, there is far more to the human mind than merely acting as a vast repository of knowledge, or we would be brute inanimates, as cognitively discerning as a voice-recognising mobile phone. It can be argued that expertise is knowledge in context - knowing which fact is more or less relevant to another fact. This is where using knowledge as the atom of our discussion is useful and efficient; knowing which fact is relevant is itself a fact, a piece of learned content. If we wish to come up with a name for this process then we could call it second-order factual awareness - or comprehension, to use Bloom's Taxonomy.

Bloom's Taxonomy is an important part of this story and debate because it is frequently alluded to in discussions about higher-order thinking skills, which are themselves an allusion to the idea that some ways of thinking (memory and recall, for example) are lower-order, while others (such as analysis and synthesis) are higher-order. There are several problems with this approach and with the use of such taxonomies.

Wise up

First, while these taxonomies might innocently refer to the various categories as all having value, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a hierarchy of importance; that the possession of mere knowledge, however well assimilated, is a low-caste thinking ability, and that the ability to compose or criticise is of higher value. Exponents of this view frequently refer derisively to knowledge as "pub quiz fodder", and the very phrase "higher-order thinking skills" implies a scale of importance. Indeed, advocates frequently refer to the importance of such abilities as marketable commodities, or applaud the relevance of such traits to the national economy. Little utility is derived, it seems, from merely knowing something.

Second, the very existence and form of the hierarchy simply hasn't been demonstrated; it is itself a value. Those who champion pub quizzes aren't knowledgeable in a particularly useful way because there is usually little depth or detail to their knowledge. The corpus of their understanding is largely incoherent, except incidentally. The true expert accumulates knowledge in context, with one fact locking arms with its neighbour in a relationship that shines light on both and embraces further content.

Third, the taxonomies ignore or divert us from the often simultaneous nature of these processes, and many critics would claim that they adopt unproved hierarchies of structure as well as value. Who is to say that these processes do not coexist? Or that one is required before another, especially at the higher levels? All taxonomies are inventions of convenience and are therefore vehicles of supposition. The boundaries between each domain are contestable, which wouldn't really matter if the stakes weren't so high.

There are many who say that this debate is irrelevant; that there is no dichotomy between skills and facts; that such a debate is tiresome and distracts from the real work of teachers; that everyone teaches a bit of both anyway. But to submit to this is to deny the very real tension that wrestles for dominance in classrooms. To dismiss the debate is to yield to it, unwittingly, and to allow the Manichaean see-saw to persist without friction.

This debate is visible everywhere: from the great curriculum wars to the battles of group work, independent learning and thinking skills. It goes on almost unnoticed by most teachers, who are raised in one or the other of its hemispheres. Like clouds, it scuds over our heads so softly that we could imagine it does not exist. But still it rains.

Tom Bennett is a teacher and TESS behaviour expert. Read more from Tom on his TES Connect blog (bit.lytombennett) or follow him on Twitter at @tombennett71.

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