Moving on the Knowledge v Skills debate

The great Knowledge v Skills debate rages on with no sign of it running out of energy: Every week there is a new blog redefining or reiterating the arguments from one side or the other.

From my own standpoint, when I first started reading education blogs about a year ago, I found the heat of the argument confusing. Why was the debate so contentious? Why was everyone so agitated? For me, both knowledge and skills are important – two sides of the same coin – and I found it a very odd idea they could be separated or one given priority over the other.

Nevertheless, when I wrote comments or tweets expressing this opinion, I was told the dichotomy is very real and causing untold harm to the education of students all over the country and I should be worried. So, I was, and I’ve tried to keep my mind open as much as I can, and I’ve diligently read every blog I’ve seen on the subject: trying to make sense of why so many bloggers find it important to keep fighting the same battles, over and over again.

In the process my views have not changed much – I’m still of the opinion both knowledge and skills are important and need to be taught and developed throughout education from nursery to university. And that learning of all kinds is best developed in meaningful and engaging (knowledge-rich) contexts – but I have begun to understand a little more of the reasons why each side is so passionate about their side of the argument and why they refuse to concede.

A change of mind

Recently I read a blog on the subject by Chris Hildrew, which I thought perfectly captured why the subject is so shrouded in antipathy and confusion. Chris, a self-confessed former ‘skill-phile’ wrote about how he has recently converted to the other side of the dichotomy as a born-again ‘knowledg-lyte’.

No blind follower of fashion, Chris has been careful to justify his change of mind by using the kind of precise language that has been notably absent from the KvS debate: “I have had a slow epiphany (if such a thing it possible). I have realised that skills are a type of knowledge – that in teaching skills we are teaching “know-how”.

Chris was writing in response to David Didau: “Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.”

I was interested that David and Chris were making such a clear distinction and this started me thinking. Perhaps one of the main reasons why the debate is so polarized and difficult to resolve is because of a lack of clarity in meaning. In my experience, the precise use and meaning of words is all important when arguing over complex ideas. Many heated disagreements are generated because people are either arguing over the same thing, but calling it a different name, or arguing over different things, and calling them the same name. Could this be true of the KvS debate? Was the renaming of skills as procedural knowledge a real difference or just a rebrand? And what is ‘procedural knowledge’? If we have found it so difficult to pin down what skills are and how they can be taught, why should it be different if we start calling them procedural knowledge? Or perhaps procedural knowledge is something completely different to skills and this is the start of a significantly new direction?

Some nuance

Whatever the answers, it seemed to me things could be made much clearer than they are.

In philosophy, Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), makes a clear distinction between ‘know that’ – termed propositional (or declarative) knowledge – and ‘know how’ – procedural (or imperative) knowledge.

Propositional knowledge “encompasses knowledge about a wide range of matters: scientific knowledge, geographical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and knowledge about any field of study whatever.” [Ref.]

– Procedural knowledge “is knowledge exercised in the performance of some task. The procedural knowledge we use to solve problems differs from the propositional knowledge we possesses about problem solving because this knowledge is formed by doing. [ref.]

After reading this, it seems to me we should be very careful, when we are talking about knowledge, to make the distinction between Propositional and Procedural knowledge, since they are two very different things. In just about all the KvS arguments I read in blogs, knowledge is considered a single easily understandable term, synonymous with information or facts, which everyone is assumed to understand and agree with. However, knowledge-as-truth is very far from being an uncontested term and knowledge-as-process can be divided into at least two very different sub-divisions.

A new direction

So, where does this leave us?

In one sense the argument has become more complicated with the addition of several new technical terms. We are no longer talking of a simple battle between knowledge and skills. We are now talking about a redefinition of all skills as procedural knowledge, in which case is the new battle between propositional and procedural knowledge? Or, are we saying procedural knowledge is different from what we call ‘skills’ and the new battle is between teaching propositional + procedural knowledge in opposition to teaching skills?

As clear as mud!

To my mind, anything that gives more precision to the language is helpful and moves the argument on. Therefore, I propose we embrace the more technical terms and develop a new line of inquiry: what do we mean by Procedural knowledge? Is it the same as skills? And, how do we teach it/develop it in our classrooms?

This seems to me a much more productive field of debate.

Asking questions

To start with, I would like to know a lot more about Procedural knowledge. What it means technically and how it develops in human beings. I have a friend, Geoff James, who I talk to about these things. He lives in Thailand (so we talk via skype), but until recently he was a teacher working for the children’s psychology services. Geoff is a trained scientist and studied epistemology and ontology (the philosophy of being) while researching his PhD, so he’s good person to ask about subjects like this.

Last week in a blog on epistemology, he wrote: “unlike information, [Procedural] knowledge isn’t stored in the brain somehow as relatively fixed material, it’s created in a specific situation. It’s never recreated in the same way again or used in the same way to produce action.” [Ref.] This puzzled me when I first read it, so I’m using this blog to ask him what he meant by it.

Geoff’s Reply:

I’ve just written two pieces which might help a bit here ( ).

I’m doing a lot a reading at the moment, including the comments on your own piece. It seems to me there’s general confusion about the language relating to this question. I’m interested in working towards shared understanding as a starting point. This isn’t n exercise in navel gazing or trying to get famous by offending some people and attracting others. Words have meaning and if we’re going to communicate meaningfully I think it worth putting some effort  into this phase of the work. Once we’ve got that…….

The single term ‘knowledge’ is used to describe many different things. The confusion this causes is evident when people are doing their level best to be understood and use ‘knowledge’ to mean;

1)   a discrete bit of information – that the elements are arranged in logical order in the periodic table created by Mendeleev

2)   discrete bits of information that can be communicated – the names and position of the elements in the first three columns of the periodic table

3)   a skilled performance which is produced automatically and repeatedly and can produce communication about itself – writing down in correct order the names of the elements in the first three columns of the periodic table

4)   a skill of performance which is produced within a particular context, is unique, is unrepeatable and uncommunicable – singing Tom Lehrer’s song ‘The Elements’ in an end of term concert.

In the language of cognitive psychology (not my first scientific language, I’m a biologist) 1 and 2 are called Declarative Knowledge. 3 and 4 are called Procedural Knowledge. Declaritive Knowledge is also known as Propositional and Descriptive Knowledge. I and 2 relate to discrete items of information, stored in memory and available for recall in the same form as hey went in. For example, I can tell you that free, equal, numerous, spiral, hypogynous (FENSH) is the characteristic arrangement of floral parts of primitive flowers. I learnt this knowledge (declarative) in 1970. It’s raw information, I haven’t processed it in any way and I can recall it in the same form as it went in, a mnemonic and it’s full version. Yesterday I rewired a 5 metre extension lead to make a short extension for more power outlets in our house. I’d tried using the original with its long lead wrapped up but it overheated badly. My tools were a pair of secateurs and a Phillips screwdriver. I assumed that I’d find it had screwed terminals as it would have done in the UK. When I looked it was soldered and there’s no earth connection here. I had to buy a new terminal block and it took me 20 minutes to finish the job. This was procedural knowledge. If you ask me how I did it, to give you a detailed description of the inside process, I can’t tell you. I just thought about it and did it. It works ok.

So at one and the same time, we are talking about knowledge as data, information, automatic routine, process, conscious performance, as being communicable and incommunicable, as permanent and transitory. That’s one reason we’re stuck.

My suggestion is to use the terms ‘know-how’ for context related, transitory knowledge, appearing when someone does something skilful, which is admittedly hard to assess; and ‘know-what’ for permanent, unprocessed, information, which informs and enables all ‘knowhow’ to appear and is readily assessable and communicated.  

A long answer to a short question – or to put that another way… there’s as much information in the question as in the answer.

Thanks Geoff

In my reply to Harry @webofsubstance below I speculate there is a further distinction between generic skills and thinking processes. That generic skills are transferable across knowledge domains and are learnt through a series of different activities (often over a long time period) of deliberate practice, until we become ‘skilled’ enough to use unconsciously.

Whereas a thinking process is the combination of different skills and Propositional knowledge (developed in the past to a greater or lesser level of expertise) that are brought together in our minds to solve a problem which might be one we have not encountered before.

What do you think of this distinction and where does it fit into the four elements of knowledge model you describe above?


Leave a comment
  1. bt0558 January 16, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    Hi Tim

    Fascinating discussion. Just to put a cat amongst the pigeons, is there not a difference between knowing how (procedural knowledge) and being able to. The first being knowledge, the second being the skill.

    Procedural knowledge you can recall and impart. A skill isn’t recalled. The skilled apply the skill, often without even being consciously aware of what they are doing.

    Looking forward to see the response from your pal.

    I hope you are keeping well

    • Tim Taylor January 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

      Thanks Brian. I’m sure Geoff will answer in the morning.

    • Geoffrey D James January 18, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Hello Brian, I think the pigeons can relax. I’m going to stick to know-how and know-what, because otherwise we’ll finish up where we started.
      Just to restate:
      Know-how=knowledge=transitory, hard to communicate, context related
      Know-what=information (in the sense of bits of data)=permanent=easy to communicate
      I think skills can be latent (I think I can do this but I haven’t given it a try yet) or potent (I thought I could do this an it turns out I can, now I’ve given it a try). I don’t know if latent and potent are the right expressions but they just came onto my keyboard as I was writing this. How?I haven’t a clue, they just did.
      I’d call the first one, latent skill, having an idea about how to do something without actually doing it. The idea of doing it comes about through putting together all the bits of information relevant to the job-to-be-done, including the information that makes up the skill-as-an-idea. So this isn’t knowledge, it’s know-what=information. If you looked at me you probably wouldn’t have a clue I was having this idea, but if you asked me what my idea was, I could tell you. Right now I’ve got the idea in my mind about how to soft-boil a hen’s egg. I’ll put the egg in the already simmering water, leave it there for 3 minutes, take it out of the water and put it in an egg-cup. I’m imaging this. it’s know-what.
      The second one, potent skill is an action. It’s actually doing the thing that I’d been thinking I might do, in real life. The information I’ve already got about egg-boiling is useful, it gives me the framework for what I’m going to do. However, now it’s come to it, I’m in your kitchen, cooking one of your own home produced eggs on your cooker. I didn’t foresee that you’ve got a gas cooker, mine’s electric. Your eggs are from your own bantams, so much smaller than ones I get from my local shop. You don’t keep your eggs in your fridge. You’ve got no clock in your kitchen, I’ve got no watch. You leave the room to feed the bantams. I cook the egg. You come back, knock the top off the egg and eat it with (very slim) soldiers. You say; “You’ve cooked this egg perfectly. How did you do it?” “Well, I guessed how much smaller the egg was than my usual ones and reduced the cooking time a bit and it wasn’t out of your fridge so it was a bit warmer to start with. Your gas seems hotter than my electric so I had to turn it right down, but it went out so I had to relight it and then give it a bit more time because I thought the water must have cooled down a bit.” “But how did you do that? How much more time did it need because the gas went out and how much less because the egg was smaller and warmer?” “I really don’t know, I just kind of guessed it, counted one-elephant-two-elepahnt up to two-fiftty ….and then had a look at the egg, blew it and thought…you know…. it’d be OK.” “Oh. Well whatever you did it worked. Thanks.” ‘That’s all right.” It’s know-how.
      As they say on cereals packets, this is a serving suggestion – for illustrative purposes only. I’ve never been in your kitchen and I don’t know if you keep bantams. But my grandmother did show me that if you’ve got no timer, take the egg out and blow on it when you think the time’s up and as soon as the water evaporates evenly over the surface of the egg done. This doesn’t answer your question about automaticity, when you’ve driven for miles and can’t recall the journey when you get out of the car and go into the house.
      How are we doing?

  2. Harry Webb January 16, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    Hi Tim

    I don’t think anyone is denying whether skills exist, whether you call them procedural knowledge or draw a distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘being able to’. The real question that I have been addressing in my posts on this issue is whether all things labelled as skills – e.g. resilience – truly exist and whether the skills that do exist are transferable across contexts or are tied quite specifically to one domain. This can result in very real differences in pedagogy. If one believes that, for instance, skills are the most important thing to develop and that they can transfer across domains – something that those who suggest knowledge is transitory and quickly out-of-date advocate – then the context in which these skills are developed becomes less important. For instance, Daisy Christodoulou talks about an English lesson where students are writing a letter to the headteacher about school uniform. In this instance, the teacher has prioritised the skill of arguing persuasively and so she has picked a context that students already know about in order to develop that skill. However, if you believe that arguing persuasively is domain dependent, then you would wish to introduce this skill in a wide range of different contexts, eg with a letter to Disraeli about home rule or something like that. You are still developing the skill but you are using it as a useful medium for also developing historical knowledge. This then pays off when students later read newspaper articles e.g. about the situation in Northern Ireland. The irony is that whereas skills are quite tightly fixed to a domain, knowledge really is transferable in that it enables you to access other sources of information and learn more as a result; a learning lever, if you will.

    Of course, the knowledge argument is often unhelpfully characterised as teachers wishing to lecture students the entire time and fill their minds with ‘disconnected’ facts. As Doug Lemov points out in his latest post, it’s actually quite hard to disconnect facts. This is one of the most beautiful things about gaining knowledge; you start to see the connections between things.


    • Ian Lynch January 17, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      The skills argument is unhelpfully characterised as teachers wishing students could be taught in the absence of knowledge. I don’t know many teachers that deny the role of knowledge or that skills transfer is easy. The question is more what knowledge, when and in what context? Using skills to refer to eg the “soft skills” set is misleading because when you say skills it conjures up different mental pictures to different people. If they are thinking about something different to you they are then going to argue with you. If I say reading with understanding is more important than just decoding, it doesn’t mean I’m saying decoding is unimportant, just that it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It’s obviously vitally important. Knowledge to me is a means to an end. I learn stuff because it is useful to me or might be useful in the future. Other people might say they learn knowledge for sheer enjoyment and the use is not important to them. This then comes back to motivation. In terms of knowledge itself, some knowledge is indeed more important and more transferable than others. We teach physics in schools rather than engineering because it is enabling knowledge, arguably transferable at least within engineering domains. The downside of that restriction is that for some people learning engineering will be more motivating because it is applying the knowledge to make stuff but they might never get to study engineering because there is not enough time to put it on the school TT. Again context and motivation are both important and often ignored.

      • Geoffrey D James January 18, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

        Hello Ian. You say ” I learn stuff because it is useful to me or might be useful in the future.” Would you be prepared to call ‘stuff’ ‘information’? If you did, “Other people might say they learn knowledge for sheer enjoyment and the use is not important to them” turns into “……. learn information ……” which might not actually be used at all, but it’s still fun to learn it. I used to read encyclopaedias when I was young so this is familiar ground!
        Maybe we could use ‘skill’ or Know-how to refer to doing something, a process, knowledge and Know-what to refer to information.
        It seems clear that we need to have know-what to be able to produce know-how/we can’t produce know-how in the absence of know-what. It’s what you’re saying when you say (substituting ‘information’ for ‘knowledge’) “Information to me is a means to an end. I learn stuff because it is useful to me or might be useful in the future.” Is that right?
        So teaching know-what is essential, and the process of putting know-what into action as know-how is also essential, in order to have agency in the world, to get things done and influence people.

        • Ian Lynch January 18, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

          Stuff is more than information. I like sports so I have learnt a lot of skills related to them, also in music. Clearly individuals have different motivations and it’s unlikely to be all one type of motivation or all another. I use skilful to mean adept at something. That might be skilled at solving crosswords which is mainly conscious cognitive or skilled at gymnastics which is mainly physical and automatic cognitive. You could be skilled in meditation which is controlling the focus of cognitive processes.

          Teaching know what is essential and so is space to practise and demonstrate know how. Apart from anything else demonstrating know how feeds back into motivation. In terms of life success know who is pretty important too. We are social animals and knowing how to relate to other people is learnt too.

          Knowledge is internalised information and understanding is relating knowledge to other knowledge – meta-knowledge if you like, knowledge of the knowledge we have learnt to make sense of it. Even if we define learning as all those processes that go on in the cognitive parts of the brain that does not take into account learnt attitudes, values or coping with stress. These are complex interactions between the limbic system and the cognitive parts of the brain involving emotion as well as cognition. So while I accept knowledge is essential (and personally I don’t know anyone who would not say it was) there are other factors that are important too. The danger is in assuming these other things have no place or value in learning when the debate should be about the balance of these things at different stages and in different contexts.

          As an experiment I taught my eldest son Newtwon’s Laws at the age of 2. Clearly he was mimicking sound not understanding individual words or the whole thing. I then associated as many practical examples to those sounds when the opportunity arose. By 9 he could explain many situations and relate them to the correct laws. He could not have read an exam question on Newton’s laws but he could have answered the conceptual questions if asked orally. So I think dogmatic approaches armed with research evidence is not always helpful when dealing with individuals in complex circumstances where it is impossible to control all the variables. Certainly it largely misses the point about learning how to win friends and influence people.

    • Tim Taylor January 17, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      Thanks Harry

      I agree with your point about skills. I think most of the problems we have with it are because it is a term with a very loose meaning. It matters what we call things and the language we use needs to have a precise meaning we all agree on. Otherwise we end up making mistakes like calling resilience, an aspect of the human condition, a skill. Resilience is clearly not a skill in anyway I would recognize and calling it one lacks understanding. We’ve had this conversation before. However, does this mean it can’t and shouldn’t be developed? In my opinion it can and should, but not by activities separate from content-based learning.

      Which brings me to your second point about transferable skills. The water here is very muddy and again not helped by the use of imprecise terminology. For example, would we all say reading and writing are skills? Most would say they definitely are, in which case they are obviously transferable across domains. And we see people doing this every day: In which case it might be helpful to start using the term ‘generic skills’ to describe these kinds of learned activity (I’ve also heard them called ‘sign-systems’).

      However, could we also say it is a skill to be able to look at a social problem from multiple points of view and be aware of your own prejudices? This is much more contentious example and I wouldn’t want to call this a skill. I would suggest this is a thinking process involving multiple elements of knowledge – both propositional and procedural, plus reflective experiences in real-world and imaginary-world scenarios – that come together in a specific context. Is this kind of thinking only the provision of experts? Maybe. But no one becomes an expert without deliberate practice, which necessarily involves making many mistakes over time. This has implications pedagogically because it means we have to provide very many opportunities for students to practice and make mistakes in a ‘safe’ (non-judgmental) environment if we want them to develop these procedural ways of thinking.

      I really like your example of the letter to Disraeli. This is exactly the kind of learning I think children should be doing. Writing letters about the school uniform is both boring and pointless. I’ve never understood why we ask children to do such tedious and worthless things at school. Is it a lack of imagination or (as you suggest) more about a philosophy of education? Either way it is crap.

      Context is fundamental and I agree entirely with your comment about domain knowledge being a ‘learning lever’. However, I’d go one step further and say we can do more than just create contexts for learning; we can also create reasons for learning. This is where drama (if used well) can be a real asset in the classroom. If we take your example of writing to Disraeli, we could co-create with the children an imaginary situation where they are writing from a particular point of view, perhaps as advisers to Parnell, advising him of the best strategies to convince the British government of the case for Home Rule.

      In this way we might create a purpose for the student’s writing and a reason for making sure their argument is convincing. They would certainly need to know a lot, both about the history of the period and how to write an effective letter of persuasion.

      Of course, like most things in school, this kind of activity could be done really badly and turn into a silly role-play. All teaching, of any kind, requires great skill – both a lot of know-how, as well as know-what.

  3. Ian Lynch January 16, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    Seems to me this is a lot to do with semantics and a lot less to do with what actually gets taught. It seems also to reduce education to the cognitive domain and ignore the effect of the limbic system on the cognitive parts of the brain, context and motivation. Practical skills require more than knowledge. I might know the theory of putting a ball in a basketball hoop but the skill in doing it and the motivation to practice the skill will be as important if not more so than knowing how to do it.

    Wrote a lot more on it here

  4. Sue Cowley January 17, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    Here’s a thought (or a question perhaps). I’d imagine that, despite the endless disagreements, we could all agree that reading is a skill? And that children are able to read in different contexts and subjects? (That transferable skill stuff everyone keeps going on about). If we teach our children to read for meaning, encourage them to enjoy reading, and know how to use a dictionary (or ask an adult) for new vocabulary, then they can get access to all the ‘know how’ in the world (so long as we don’t close *all* the libraries). This is the point I was trying to make here:

    Most (or all?) of what we call knowledge is not somehow a state secret or inaccessible to children – it’s there in books of gradually increasing complexity. If we help children learn to read, and want to read, then we can inspire them to use their reading skills to be curious to find out more about their world. That way they get to access the knowledge that interests them, rather than (or as well as) some kind of externally mandated ‘core’ of knowledge that someone in government decides is ‘valuable’ for them. At the moment my kids are into Egypt/the Paranormal/the Romans/Armour and Weapons/Science. So they read about it. Constantly. And ask questions of whatever adult is around at the time. Last month they were into a completely different set of things. Curiosity is what unlocks knowledge and makes it stick. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t teach knowledge in schools, of course we should – it’s so *interesting*! Just that maybe we should start with the children instead of with abstract conversations about systems.

    • Tim Taylor January 17, 2014 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks for your comment Sue.
      Reading is an interesting one and perfectly illustrates the problem I’m trying grapple with in this blog. Of course we can call reading a skill – “the ability to do something well” – but it doesn’t really get us very far. The question that follows is, what is a skill? We all know what a skill looks like (we can read ourselves and watch others do it), but what is actually going on in our brains to make that happen?
      One possible answer (or at least a suggestion) is that the skill of reading is a type of knowledge – which I think you would agree it is – and what happens (in our minds) is that when we are learning the skill of reading we are developing Propositional knowledge, that is packets of information (about phonic representation, letter and word shapes etc), which takes applied practice – including instruction, support, repetition, and feedback – to use effectively.
      Once the skill of reading becomes mastered, and we become proficient in using the skill, then we can use the Propositional knowledge we have developed to use it in a many different ways – using a different cognitive process called Procedural knowledge, which takes less effort and is done more quickly and efficiently. This is the kind of knowledge we use and apply as expert readers.
      For me, this is a more nuanced and productive explanation of the learning process, because it begins to explain the changes that are happening in our brains as we learn. I think the best explanation for this shift from propositional to procedural knowledge came from my driving instructor who said, “When you learn to drive you start of as consciously-incompetent. Every gear-shift is slow and deliberate, even staying on the road is a trial. But, as you become more proficient, you become consciously-competent: You still have to think about everything you do, but you are more confident, you don’t have to look at the gear-stick to change gears, you can watch the road and steer at the same time. After a few months of deliberate practice you eventually become an expert and are unconsciously-competent. Your driving becomes instinctual, you can think about other things as you drive, your memory and concentration are freed up for other activities.”
      For me, this is a persuasive explanation and stresses the importance of applied practice.
      Of course, learning to drive a car won’t help me fly a helicopter or pilot a ship. These require the development of a different set of skills. If I wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter I need lessons and I would start, once again, as consciously-incompetent.
      I suppose I might have an advantage over someone who had never learnt to drive a car, but we’ll leave that to one side for now.
      This is the challenge to the idea of transferable skills. Learning a skill in one domain does not prepare us well for learning in another. Therefore, learning generic skills, outside of the context they are to be used and without a rich knowledge base, is less effective as a teaching strategy than creating learning opportunities that happen in a context with a rich knowledge base.
      This is a direct argument against teaching generic skills (such as thinking skills or SEAL) separately or out of context, without content information.
      I think this is a sound argument.
      The further argument, for which I have less sympathy, is that this implies a particular kind of pedagogy that preferences knowledge acquisition by instruction over other methods of teaching such as discovery and inquiry. At least that is how I interpret it.
      For me, learning to read or learning to drive a car involves deliberate practice, including the acquisition of specific information, as well as many opportunities as possible to use and apply. Without practicing, including making mistakes and getting things wrong, teaching and learning is far less effective. Learning to read means ‘reading’ books (however badly), just as learning to drive means getting in the car and pressing the pedals. Both need an instructor, someone who knows more and can help and support, and both need the urge and intrinsic motivation to try and keep trying.
      Telling people is one way of developing Propositional knowledge, but it is slow and inefficient and will rarely develop Procedural knowledge by itself. For effective learning to happen we need to create opportunities for developing Propositional knowledge (both content and skills) through a variety of different methods. Classrooms need to provide for students content-rich contexts so they can acquire, apply, and develop their knowledge, skills, and understanding over time.

      • Ian Lynch January 17, 2014 at 11:03 am #

        Agree with the analysis. Motivation is a real issue and rather than talking about preferred learning styles it would have been better if the reference was to preferred learning contexts. If you are motivated to learn in a particular context or believe you learn better in a particular way you probably will irrespective of what physiological arguments are used. There are too many obvious exceptions to the idea that all learning is better if traditional teaching methods are employed for such a theory to stand up. Apart from anything else it will depend on the individual teacher. To me, taking the research evidence about knowledge and its role in cognition is one thing but ending up by concluding that teaching knowledge by direct formal instruction must be the most efficient way to do it is scientific nonsense, it’s a political dogma not science. Different subject contexts will require different balance and so will different individuals. Getting the balance right is tricky but it is the only way to optimise learning. In the end what matters is what competencies the student has when they leave school.

    • Harry Webb January 18, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

      Your ability to read is related to how much stuff you know. I can imagine nothing more soul-destroying that constantly having to consult a dictionary in order to read definitions that I don’t understand.

      • Ian Lynch January 18, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

        Nearly as annoying as having to read entire research papers to find out what was intuitively obvious from the outset 😉

        Thinking about it, I don’t know many adults that do constantly consult dictionaries. I do it myself occasionally – maybe once a week? Maybe not as often. But on the internet there are many ways of finding out what the word means including being able to hear the word spoken. So much more likely to find something to help you understand. Probably because a relatively small number of words is good enough for what most people read most of the time. Like RISC processing – 80% of the processes need 20% of the instructions. If they have a working vocabulary of 25,000 words they will probably not come across new words that often and then it’s easy to look them up on the internet *if* they are skillful. Young children pushing their envelope are likely to come across words they don’t know more often so being able to quickly find them and learn the meaning I’d say was a good habit to get into because gradually they won’t need to look up very much at all.

  5. Sue Cowley January 17, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    p.s. It strikes me that yes, we can equip our children with all the knowledge required to read a ‘serious newspaper’, but if they leave school and never want to read a serious newspaper, or have little sense of interest in and curiosity about their world, then I’m not sure we are any further forwards.

    • Tim Taylor January 17, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      You’re absolutely right about this. What is the point of teaching children to read if by the time they can, they no longer want to? The new curriculum makes it implicit that schools must instil a love of books and learning. This is a massive (and welcome) challenge.

  6. Karl Bentley January 17, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Yes, that old philosophical split between thought and action, it was handy for those ancient Greek philosophers who didn’t want to do actual physical work. Endless years of hair splitting, pointless sophistry ensued, which of course is a good little earner if you’re one of those sort of philosophers.
    But if you are philosophically Pragmatic you can dismiss such a split and get on with things.

  7. Chris Chivers January 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Hi Tim,
    In early incarnations of the NC, the notion of Using and Applying was embedded as discrete strands, with equal weighting, suggesting that, at least from 1987, the UK was seeking to articulate a balance of knowing stuff with the ability to apply that knowledge in practice. It certainly was classroom practice before the NC.

    I would propose that some of the argument is summed up by considering that Using and Applying is akin to messy play and some adults shy away from the messy play as it needs careful handling and some clearing up afterwards. In other words, it can be time consuming. Much easier (more efficient?) just to tell something.

    It’s also interesting that academic word use is being harnessed by the knowledge side, suggesting that the practical is less so. While I applaud the ability to use the grand words, they can also get in the way, unless definitions are agreed. I like to keep things simpler, perhaps to my cost.

    However,I do like Sue’s reading analogy and would link this with writing. The skills of writing, largely “how to”, are transferrable, in my opinion, but the ability to write to a particular style and purpose can hold similarities, but might also hold specifics, such as word choice or phrasing. But, once learned, they can be used again. Language is not “one use only”.


    • Tim Taylor January 18, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

      Thanks Chris

      You cover a lot of ground here!

      I’m not as familiar with the NC pre-2000. In the 2000 curriculum it the key skills and thinking skills are explicitly described as “embedded in the subjects of the National Curriculum” and “Opportunities for teaching and learning all these skills across the key stages can be identified when planning.” [p.21]


      “Thinking skills
      By using thinking skills pupils can focus on ‘knowing how’ as well as ‘knowing what’ – learning how to learn. The following thinking skills complement the key skills and are embedded in the National Curriculum.” [p.23]

      I suppose there is a case for saying not all the Key Skills and Thinking Skills are technically skills and there might be a better more precise term, such as procedural knowledge. I wouldn’t have a problem with this.

      However, denying that they exist and need to be developed seems a very extreme view. And very odd to me.

      Therefore, the argument seems not so much about KvS (as it has been often portrayed) but the teaching and development of K&S as pedagogic separate activities. i.e. Thinking Skills lessons, where the students practice ‘skills’ – such as induction, deduction, etc – in stand alone activities and then are expected to apply these across the knowledge domains.

      This is particularly problematic in the case of developing ‘creative-thinking skills’ where the implication is that students can learn to be creative by doing stand-alone activities.

      I have a lot of sympathy for these criticisms. I don’t believe people can become creative by doing exercises to develop their creativity.

      I would say the mistake was made when the authors of 2000 curriculum called all these ‘dimensions of thinking’ skills. However, I don’t think the problem is solved by calling them all types of knowledge and denying that some of them can developed at all and are not the business of teaching.

      However, the authors of the 2000 curriculum did not recommend that these skills be developed as separate activities. In fact they seem to suggest the opposite – “thinking skills complement the key skills and are embedded in the National Curriculum.” I remember in the late 90s it was education consultants such as Alistair Smith and Trevor Hawes who were strongly advocating stand alone thinking skills exercises for students to practice and then apply.

      I believe this was a mistake. Well intended, but a mistake. The key skills and thinking skills (as defined by C2000) should, in my opinion, always be taught and developed within meaningful content-rich contexts.

      • Chris Chivers January 18, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

        Hi Tim,
        In reality, I think most teachers teach skills in the context of a knowledge base. Visiting schools as often as I do, that seems to be my evidence. My concern is less for this “normality” but a push towards the knowledge only aspects. It has significant implications for the future. Children may know a little more, but be less able to apply what they know, so handicapped.

        Match and challenge were watchwords of the curriculum pre-87, with the latter being significant. Skills were sometimes learned “on the job” as needs arose. Other skills were pre-empted and practiced beforehand, such as sawing in DT, which was given the heading of resource skills. Equally, a lesson on how to use a reference book to find information would precede using a book to find a specific piece of information to support research.

        Problem solving demands that you utilise what you know, plan within those parameters and possibly identify gaps to be filled, allowing research and appropriate up-skilling before starting.
        It’s an interesting chicken and egg situation.
        Hope the footie was good!

        • Ian Lynch January 18, 2014 at 5:55 pm #


          I’d concur that after observing many hundreds of lessons and working in 7 different schools I’d say it is rare to see skills being taught in isolation from subject content. Even the first iteration of the NC science which was process led didn’t exclude content, it was more about giving emphasis to scientific method rather than the “body of knowledge” side of things. Emphasis NOT exclusion. Of course there have been extremes like early Nuffield Science which sometimes seemed like the average 14 year old was supposed to make the same discoveries as Newton et al. But having said all this, scientific method is important. It is the one part that has some chance of transfer to other subjects but of course it is difficult especially in social contexts where not all variables can be controlled. Caution is needed with any interpretation of results.

          If we are being scientific about this, we need to take account of all the variables. Comparing one teaching method with another when one has been instilled into teachers their whole life and the other only for a couple of hours of CPD is not comparing like with like. The reason why change is hard to achieve is that no-one perseveres long enough because if there is not an immediate gain they are discredited by the political opposition. We also have to take into account attitudes. If you believe science is simply a body of knowledge and scientific method just comes naturally from it, why bother with any practical work at all? One reason is because it sparks interest and motivation to learn. The emotional response to want to learn is more than just the cognitive parts of the brain sparking an idea. Is the attitude to use science to confirm prejudice or to get at the truth?

          Without exposure to solving problems how will the attitudes associated with good problem solvers be developed? Is problem solving just knowing how to do it? No there is more to it than that, there is a need to have experience in a wide range of contexts so that new contexts are tackled with confidence “I haven’t seen anything quite like this but I am confident I’ll crack it because I have been successful in many similar circumstances in unfamiliar territory”. Not enough opportunity for this might explain why entrepreneurs are thin on the ground and why so many adults have a panic attack if anyone suggests they switch from their current learnt technology. In a rapidly changing world we need to prepare children for many changes in job and similar consequences of a massively connected digital world. It’s not going to just go away and its more than just knowing stuff.

  8. Ian Lynch January 17, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Example of a 15 year old’s work when given freedom to Skills or knowledge? DO I really care? 😉

    All our qualifications are based on a 2 stage system. Demonstrate basic practical competence in the coursework and if you do that you can take an exam that will grade you. If you don’t you can’t take the exam. The practical bit should as far as possible be in context, not a simulation or some made up scenario. The You Tube video was commissioned by the band and the candidate delivered. The exam bit differentiates who is ready for higher level academic learning and who is not. The coursework element is more about motivating and providing the flexibility and freedom to excel in contexts of specific interest without the constraints usually associated with formal coursework assessment. Also massively reduces the bureaucratic overhead leaving more time for teaching without having to ditch coursework.

  9. Nancy Gedge January 17, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    I very much enjoyed reading this – even though there were points at which I fell into a wormhole of thinking, ‘but what does he actually mean…?’
    I think that part of my problem with this debate is that I would like more examples of what people are actually talking about when they make their arguments. Which phase of education do they mean? Which subject do they teach? Indeed, as you point out, what exactly do they mean by ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’?
    Me, I’m a primary teacher. I teach a whole range of subjects from PE through Music, Drama, Art, English, Maths – there’s a subject, I teach it. I know that each subject has a range of knowledge and skills encapsulated in it, and that for each subject, these are different.
    Looking back on my practise, I think that those lessons where I focussed on ‘skills’ were those in which I was least confident. Games is a case in point. But what was the point in teaching ball skills if there was no game to play? What was the point of learning how to play rounders if no-one could catch a ball?
    In subjects where I was more confident, History, say, I very quickly borrowed from other subjects to teach children the concepts of historical bias and points of view. I happily taught children to read musical notation adn play instruments properly at the same time.
    Setting knowledge and skills up in a polarised debate seems to me a strange undertaking. I could go all post-structuralist on you and point out that meaning is not created through binary opposites – knowledge is not simply knowledge because it is not skill, but I won’t.
    One without the other makes no sense. Different subjects, academic disciplines if you like, require a different balance between the two – and, I suppose, above them all is experience, which is the greatst teacher of them all.

  10. Ian Lynch January 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    @Nancy – This is why context and its effect on motivation is important. In sport skills practice takes place both in the context of the game and outside. eg Jonny Wilkinson kicking the ball in rugby. The big problem is the use of words in specific contexts then making generalisations to contexts where the principle no longer holds.

    Those that don’t like skills are referring to a specific category of skills, not eg the skill of kicking a ball. Clearly there is transfer of skills in closely related activities and it is very much more difficult in very different activities. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to realise that a professor of engineering who knows a lot about forces is not automatically going to be able to transfer that knowledge to driving a racing car and win a grand prix. It’s more about eg the skills in using the internet and whether than means we don’t need to learn knowledge because we can just look it up. Again, I doubt many pro-internet people think in such simplistic terms.

    Clearly you have to have background embedded knowledge to make use of the internet. The really interesting question is whether or not the knowledge needed now is the same or different compared to the knowledge needed 25 years ago? If we need new knowledge what can we afford to drop to make room for it? Is there an opportunity cost? If you were educating someone pre-printing press would the under-pinning knowledge needed be different from post-printing press?

    Most of the pro-knowledge people are so focussed on the cognitive they seem to forget that education is more than the cognitive and even the cognitive has different aspects that interrelate. Skills in the cognitive domain as opposed to physical are often about relating different bits of knowledge. You can’t do the relations without some knowledge to relate. But over concentration on the underlying knowledge means we could impoverish the more complex thinking dependent on drawing knowledge to application in eg solving problems. We might say problem solving doesn’t transfer between domains but that is manifestly untrue in some cases and it might well be that the problem solving activity is what provides the motivation for the learner to learn the associated knowledge. We’ll then get – “but that is inefficient it’s quicker to just tell them the knowledge”. If only it was that simple!

    Individuals are complex and different in many ways. It would be surprising if all learnt equally well. The cognitive theory implies they should do but in practice there are many other variables that can’t be ignored. Genetics, context, motivation current level of learning and so on. They will all affect learning and in different ways with different individuals. We do need to take into account what cognitive research tells us but I think that a lot of the interpretation is extreme and unscientific religion being dressed up as science for political reasons. The irony is that if learning is so specific to particular domains, how come we are teaching a watered down academic curriculum when few people will ever become academics? What are we trying to achieve?


  1. ORRsome blog posts from the week that was. Week 4 | high heels and high notes - January 29, 2014

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