Knowledge v Skills – It’s not a bloody dichotomy


n. pl. di·chot·o·mies

1. Division into two usually contradictory parts or opinions


A dichotomy as the dictionary definition above says is two contradictory parts. Contradictory meaning points that oppose each other.

Knowledge and skills are not a dichotomy. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact they go hand in hand.

And yet if you’ve spent any time reading articles from the media about education, or listening to government ministers, or reading recent books, or attending education conferences you might think differently. Spending Saturday last week at the Festival of Education at Wellington College it seemed to me to be the debate du jour.

Experts would have you believe that teachers ally themselves with either side of the dichotomy. That there are those teachers who only teach Knowledge (and it needs a capital!) and spend hours telling students the most important Facts (again, another capital needed). On the other side are those who purely focus on skills (they don’t need a capital), believe the internet is the saviour of education and just do project work, facilitating learning and barely speaking in lessons.

What these ‘experts’ fail to tell you is that this is the absolute minority. In fact any teacher that solely teaches knowledge or skills is letting their students down, as neither can be done in true isolation. Learning needs to be the careful combination of both. Preferably a period of knowledge consumption followed by a period of higher order thinking skills.

And yet the current trend of opinion, especially from the right, would have you believe that any teacher shirks from facts, like a mouse hiding in it’s hole from a cat. The fact that this is not true has been skirted over.

I personally love my subject and as a passionate historian I want my students to absorb knowledge and facts about the past in the hope that they will become as passionate as I am. I am not the exception to the rule. However I also want them to develop the key skills of the historian; using evidence, developing an argument. And I realise that these two go hand in hand.

Yet I feel ashamed to say I love knowledge at the moment as those who are advocating this side of a non existent dichotomy do so by using rhetoric and logic that is often deeply false and yet is being picked up by the right to justify the rapid changes they are making to the education establishment.

The latest book to do this is the Seven Myths of Education by Daisy Christodoulou which many on Twitter and at the Festival of Education clearly see as a voice of reason and sense.

Unfortunately I am not sure I agree.

Christodoulou sets out to confront the Seven Myths ranging from ‘facts prevent understanding‘ to ‘teaching knowledge is indoctrination‘. For the full list see the Curriculum Centre website:

Before I move on to criticisms there are parts I agree with in the book. I agree that ‘learning to learn‘ cannot be done in discrete lessons. I also think that the Opening Minds course goes too far with the skills focus and I appreciate that there is some acknowledgement that knowledge cannot be separate from skills.

However there is far more that I disagree with. I suppose these are my six myths about the Seven Myths.

Myth 1. Gaining knowledge is a one way system 

Throughout the book Christodoulou implies that to learn knowledge the student must be given this by a teacher. The teacher will deliver the facts they want the student to learn. This is plainly naive. Students can and should be encouraged to discover knowledge for themselves and a good teacher will plan their lessons accordingly. In the classroom knowledge need not be a one way system. There are undoubtedly some topics and concepts that will need far more direct teacher input but these are in the minority. With an effective practitioner a learning sequence can be set up where the student discovers this knowledge for themselves or discovers it with peers and where this happens they will learn and remember more than they would have if they had been told. For example the other day I planned a lesson on the Scramble for Africa (Gove would love me). I kept teacher exposition to a minimum (defining key terms and giving background narrative) but with choice sources and careful enquiry construction the students had gained an invaluable evaluation of the new imperialism of the 19th century  by the end of the lesson. They gained knowledge. I didn’t give it to them, I just created the opportunities for them to do it. And in doing so they learnt key skills about sources and enquiry.

Myth 2. The internet has not changed things

In Chapter 4 – You can always just look it up – Christodoulou says that the with the invention of the internet the fact that you have a plethora of information at your fingertips does not make teaching facts redundant. She argues that you need long term memory or domain-specific knowledge in order to compute the information in front of you. She uses an example of two enquiries. One a cricket question which she can answer with ease as she has the domain specific knowledge of the game and uses this to find an appropriate website to answer her question. The other a baseball question which she fails at as she has no knowledge of the game. This however is a flawed example. A good internet researcher, and I seriously hope these are the skills we are teaching our kids, would teach the enquirer to break the question down into it’s component parts. Christodoulou, however,  says “I did not need to know how to…use Google correctly….I needed to know a lot more about baseball”. This isn’t true. Granted without domain specific knowledge it would take longer but given time the internet would have given you the domain specific knowledge in order to answer the higher level question. If you don’t believe this read the work of Sugata Mitra, his recent article in the Guardian highlights this.

Myth 3. Active learning is not valid

There is also an implication in the book that active learning or project learning is ineffective. In Chapter 6 she quotes the website Active History and gives an example of students experientially learning about the Black Death. What is wrong with this? Has she played it? As a historian I can tell you its packed with fact and through immersion students will gain all precious knowledge. Active learning makes lessons more engaging and hooks our students in. A vast number of studies have proved that happy engaged students will learn more. Why not play to this strength? Earlier this year I did a role of 1066 where we reenacted the battle (Ian Dawson style). The students learnt more that lesson and could still retell the story to great detail than many other more didactic lessons this year.

Myth 4. Children cannot think like an expert

In the same chapter Christodoulou says that activities where students are ‘acting like historians‘ are weak as they cannot act on an expert level and therefore this has no merit. This is ridiculous. No one is implying that a student in Year 8 will think and behave in the same way as a professional historian, for example like my hero Professor Ronald Hutton. But do I want that student to begin to think the same way and develop some of the same strategies and techniques as Ronald? Hell yes. Students can and should question sources, build evidence into an argument and develop opinions as this will make them better historians, better historians who will ultimately acquire more knowledge than if they were just lectured.

Myth 5. Knowledge cannot indoctrinate students

In Chapter 7 Daisy says that “knowledge doesn’t indoctrinate; knowledge liberates” and claims that there is a core knowledge of “cognitive benefit” that all students should have to prepare them for the world. If they have this core knowledge they will be able to cope in the different situations they encounter. To an extent this is true but where this concerns me  is who gets to decide what this core knowledge of cognitive benefit is? A core knowledge will always be political as any selection of what facts are more important than others will require the selector to use a value system. This makes it potentially very dangerous and any historian who looks to the twentieth century will see a plethora of examples where different government’s imposed what they believed to be a core knowledge of cognitive benefit upon their citizens to disastrous effect.

Myth 6. OFSTED reports make a sound evidence base

The final point I want to make is the evidence base that this book rests upon. All the vast claims in the book rest upon Christodoulou’s three years of teaching experience and OFSTED reports, mostly the subject specific reports. This is not a sound base to make such claims. The sample size is small and these reports give but a snapshot of the education establishment. Without spending time in the classroom and seeing what ‘normal’ lessons are like, looking through schemes of work, gathering teacher and student voice, I think it is worrying that statements about education, that are being widely quoted in the media and in social media, are being taken as fact.

But please don’t just take my word for it. Read the book. It’s short and an easy read. I’m just not convinced by it. You might be and I doubt that this will be the final say in an argument that has been raging for a very long time.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Knowledge v Skills – It’s not a bloody dichotomy

  1. suecowley says:

    And this is the inevitable outcome of the whole ‘core knowledge’ argument
    coming soon to a school near you via a kindly ‘core knowledge’ publisher – wait and see!
    Ken, a lot of this ‘debate’ is just marketing dressed up as something else. I’m just not willing to buy into the hype or to buy this book.
    I would however like to find this mythical school with all the project based learning and the complete absence of facts. I think it might have been called Summerhill?

  2. RCA says:

    “Myth 3. Active learning is not valid

    There is also an implication in the book that active learning or project learning is ineffective. ”

    I haven’t read the book but a ten second look on google scholar found these two meta-analyses summarizing evidence across several disciplines and age groups that there is a strong evidence base supporting active learning. Here’s the links to the abstracts:
    “This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but uneven support for the core elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning.”

  3. bt0558 says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Nice to see the voice of reason on here. I was starting to think that the”lets praise, retweet and reblog gang” were strting to block out the majority.

    I also read the book and like you, there were parts with which I agreed. However I did not feel that the evidence for the existence of the myths was “watertight” as had been suggested on one of the early review’s. Interesting but for me not convincing.

    It seems clear to me that the individual’s involved in pushing the Hirsch agenda are passionate about their beliefs. The agenda seems to me to be more educational philosophy and transmission of culture rather than one of classroom methods. I think however most teachers are more interested in learning within their classrooms than they are in the whole “core knowledge” debate.

    As one who has been teaching in the “content rich” US curriculum for the last 2 years, I am able to say that the experience has given me a good number of laughs. The information considered essential to participate in US society is sometimes reasonable and often hilarious.

    I would like to see the current batch of celebrity bloggers focus a bit more on the political and philosophical stuff and leave the teachers to do what they do best, teach a mix of content and skills that allow kids to get on in the world.

    Thanks for a common sense blogpost.

  4. HeatherF says:

    Regards myth 6. I don’t understand why you claim Ofsted reports and Christodoulou’s own experiences aren’t enough to prove the views, which she calls myths, are widely held. I don’t understand your challenge given that you stridently defend those very views in this blog.

    • kenradical says:

      I didn’t put my views in a book as I realise that in order to make such vast claims that are being touted by the Twittersphere so thoroughly I would need to do vast research to back up my opinion. This blog as ever is pure opinion and I’d never claim it was anything more

      • bt0558 says:

        In his review of the book on Amazon, Michael Fordham (Cambridge History PGCE) made the following observation which would seem to support this point.

        “This is not to say that that such reports are not informative — they certainly are — but Daisy’s claim that they provide a reliable and unproblematic account of pedagogy would stand up neither to the scrutiny of a masters thesis supervisor nor academic peer review. I am, perhaps, being a little harsh: Daisy’s book is neither a thesis nor a work of scholarship and it would be unfair to judge it by those standards”

        That aside, clearly her own experience plus Ofsted reports are not enough to make a claim of “widespread”.

      • kenradical says:

        Michael’s review is excellent, very different from my own and I recommend everyone should read it.

  5. debrakidd says:

    I’m glad you wrote this – it summed up some of my own concerns. Let’s take the cricket/basketball idea for a moment. If I wanted children to learn about basketball, I wouldn’t get them to look it up on Google. Neither would I get them to sit down in a class to learn about it. We’d go out and play the darned game. And once we’d learned the rules, we might use a mixture of independent research and direct instruction to look at the history/economics/sociology of the game – i.e. once they were interested. Some core curriculum advocates forget one key element in this debate – the need to engage.

  6. manyanaed says:

    I have bought and read the book, which I enjoyed. I think that Michael is wrong in some parts of his blog, but I do agree that the small sample from Ofsted reports Daisy has used made that part of the evidence base weaker than it could have been. I do, however, believe that the evidence from cognitive science about working memory and long term memory, the evidence base from Prof. John Hattie, Google it if you have not watched the two videos explaining his work, do lead us to the conclusion that before we can get children to use some of the active methods of learning we must provide them with the knowledge base to be able to best benefit from active learning. Also that active learning, or whatever you want to call it, will be great for practising the knowledge base children already have and will be quite poor at adding to that knowledge. Great at securing knowledge that already is in long term memory but not good at putting it into long term memory in the first place.

    I think the current debate has been great at polarising the two camps and not so great at recognising the benefits of both. BUT, I do think that for the “initial” instruction, the stuff children need to know, skills as well, are best delivered by the teacher using clear, structured teaching.

    I don’t think children can “discover” facts until they have a great deal of factual information already . Those facts need to be secured in long term memory and reasonably easy for the child to recall, ie learned well. This can happen using written material but the issue is not as much as can they as is it the best way for the “initial” learning.

    I also wish I did not have to put initial in speech marks. We don’t have a term for the facts a child needs to know before that can easily add to their knowledge base by more independent work. I do know that the number of facts is quite a long way from zero!

  7. bt0558 says:

    I think your points have it about right, and they reflect the views of most teachers I have ever worked with.
    The debate seems to be a more content and less skills one rather than an independent/teacher directed one, although the latter is for me is just as important a discussion.
    I think the responses on this blogpost have been the most civilised I have seen on the topic for a while.

  8. Ref Myth 5
    The political control over facts has a history across the world, especially where dictat is the political process. There is some evidence of this within the original draft NC, where claims of attribution focused on one person, or a very small group.

    It has saddened me too to hear the plaudits for this book, but also the rubbishing of alternative views, which might come from a learning centred viewpoint.

    I have yet to either teach a lesson without content, or view one that has none. If I did so, that would be a cause for concern.

    As I tweeted last evening; It ain’t (just) what you know, but the way that you know it .. (and can use and apply it)

  9. The main point (as I see it) is not that there are scores of teachers leading lessons with no content, but that knowledge for its own sake is treated as being of less value than ‘skills’.
    Unfortunately, you cannot make use of skills without a good level of background knowledge – you may be able to gather information, but you would be unlikely to make sense of it.

  10. edpodesta67 says:

    This is really insightful and clear sighted – thanks Richard for setting out that which is rolling around my head in an angry and inchoate fuddle :).

    You do meet a number of teachers who value skills above knowledge. But I agree that these are in a minority. I would also say that the zealots (and they do exist) on both sides are very very few in number.

    However, the worst of us make excellent targets for those determined to use their malpractice as an excuse for changes that are designed to bring value-laden approaches in the way that Richard outlines.

    There is one thing that I’m not sure of – I worry when people say that the internet has changed things to the extent that some like Mitra claim. Kids are empowered by excellent knowledge – but they’re also empowered by the internet to extent and to challenge the knowledge that is presented to them. However, I fear that the internet is actually just one more teaching and learning tool – its use needs to be assessed, practiced and improved. I’m reminded of research (I think into Ontario schools) that went in for a TV based curriculum in the days when the TV or video tapes were going to revolutionise learning – the findings were that some teachers used the TV very well to help students learn, whilst others didn’t use it effectively. Teachers use technology as expert mediators – creating experiences and environments in which the tools can be used.

  11. Pete Laberge says:

    Well, basic facts and knowledge (and experience with certain techniques), are like gas in the tank: They give you the basics to power the engine. You can then find out more, if you need to. And there are other things besides Google. We need to teach young people that. The net may not always be available. Civilizations fall. Or the net might not be available where you are. It can happen. Rome,after all was infallible….

    Sometimes there ARE things you need to know. Unless you are one of those fools who thinks a 5 min Youtube video can help him fix his car’s brakes properly, or service his gas furnace. If so, please do not live near me, or drive on the same streets I do. And having worked in HVAC, I could tell you about the idiots who tried to “fix” their own furnace or A/C. Sometimes their actions merely lead to expensive repairs by a real expert. (Which was good thing.) But sometimes, their actions caused real danger. Now, if they endanger themselves, i really do not care. If they endanger others, though … then it matters.

    Yes, you could, if you knew enough about Google, or whatever, search and find some answer about a topic. But would that make you good at, say, baseball? Would it make you able to asses a medical situation properly? (And so on, I could giver many examples.) And how long would it take you? And if you do not have enough knowledge to ask the RELEVANT question(s), how do you find the answer(s) on the internet? But then, sometimes, would not asking or talking to a human, “who knew” … be the better and more efficient thing to do? Young people need to be taught other ways of getting information, knowledge, learning facts and techniques, and garnering real experience. Interaction with a real human … can sometimes be useful.

    If computers and the net can do it all, then, great! We can get rid of all those obsolete and overly expensive teachers, professors, and instructors, and replace them all with something much cheaper. But I doubt that will improve matters much, don’t you?

    • edpodesta67 says:

      I’m not sure which bit of Richard’s post you’re disagreeing with? It’s great fun to set up straw-men, but does it really move the debate on?

      • Pete Laberge says:

        I am neither agreeing or disagreeing. I am merely contributing 2 cents.

        Some I agree with, some I disagree with.

        BUT: I have learned one thing in 57 years. Whenever people set about making absolute statements about non-prove-able theories, or set about to prove or debunk “myths”, or prognosticate about the future…. They are likely wrong somewhere. Maybe not everywhere, but somewhere. I cannot recall the exact quotes. But both Twain and Heinlein had a bit to say about these matters.

        As for straw men, I really have no idea what you are talking about….
        Or, have you not heard that Rome, did indeed fall?
        I am assuming you are smart enough NOT to (unless you have training and experience) attempt to fix your own gas furnace. Which, by the way, should you try, can void little things, like warranties, or insurance policies. But then you may not have seen what I have seen…
        I would also assume that you would like accurate facts and procedures.
        And that you like information and such, to be found quickly and efficiently.

        I do not see how anyone can argue against people getting together and interacting, amd learning from each other. Sometimes, even in person….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s