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(Not) Picking a Side - Skills v. Knowledge

Monday, April 14, 2014

By Warwick Mansell, freelance education journalist

Image © frankyjuarez

It seemed almost too crazy to be true. Yet my very experienced, non-ideological and well-placed source was adamant that it was right. 

And the thing is England’s education reform process has become so politicized, with change often driven through by ministers (even though a majority of teachers would disagree with it) that I was inclined to believe him.

The claim that my source made was that, back in late 2011, the education minister overseeing the publication of a new national curriculum for England, which lays down what must be taught to millions of students in mainstream state-funded schools, wanted to ban the word “skills” from its pages. 

Perhaps that might sound non-remarkable to any audience outside of education specialists. But it actually represented an extreme position in an enduring debate about the nature of learning, which has become particularly prominent over here under the current, Conservative-led government. 

PICK A SIDE

The very crude shorthand is that this debate is “knowledge versus skills.” Do we see education as mainly the passing on of factual information; or is the application of knowledge, or even skills such as analysis considered separately from knowledge, what matters? This argument has perhaps acquired more relevance in the past two decades with the growth of the internet and consequent, fiercely contested, claims that factual knowledge becomes less important now that we have search engines. 

Like many, I find myself unsympathetic to either extreme in this argument. 

First, while those advocating the position are worthy of respect, the idea that the rise of Google makes factual knowledge less important to teach children seems to me to be a claim to treat very cautiously. 

As a journalist who uses search engines most days in researching articles, my job has been transformed by technology.  This makes sourcing information, once you know what you want to look for, so much easier. 

But what do you want to look for? Factual knowledge provides the answer and is still hugely important in my job. If I see, for example, a suspicious claim in a government document, it is background knowledge that arouses that suspicion, and experience which helps inform my decision as to where to look. Current search engines often barely scratch the surface of what can be found if you know where to look. And I rely on the decades of experience of contacts and sources – i.e. their detailed factual knowledge – to build up an understanding.

 The counter-argument would be to say that anyone armed only with a search engine could set up as a journalist and, from day one, do a fantastic job. Good luck with that one.

Pulling back from the personal, it has always seemed to me to be strange to think  given that we put teachers in front of pupils for maybe a decade and a half of their lives, that we would not want them communicating, sensibly, all that they know in terms of detailed factual understanding of their subjects. (An interesting further perspective on that debate, by the way, is here.)

But to go to the other extreme – that education is only about passing on factual knowledge – seems dangerous, too. 

NOT ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER

A couple of years ago, I found myself having to read the online brochures of university courses across the UK, in most subjects. Almost without exception, in specifying the qualities they sought and looked to build on in would-be students, they highlighted the importance of skills such as the ability to analyse and communicate alongside purely factual knowledge. 

Again, this resonates personally, this time with my preparation for working life. My postgraduate journalism course was a useful mix of the teaching of factual and academic knowledge covering the law, government and political/ethical issues in journalism with skills: shorthand, typing and above all, the basic technique of writing a story.

Beyond that, simply memorizing factual information does seem a lower form of understanding than not just having that knowledge but also to apply it. To analyse it, to criticise it and to put it in context. On a related point, how much more impressive would it be for an individual to have worked out for themselves, for example, the subtext of a piece of writing rather than having memorised their teacher’s notes on it?

So, to this outsider, the polarities of this debate seem very strange, yet seemingly extreme positions still appear to have currency. 

Last summer, a government consultation on the future of our assessment system in primary schools said that teachers should be helped to focus on “the essential knowledge that all pupils should learn.” This immediately conjured up in your writer an image of teachers standing at an old-fashioned blackboard, leading children in incantation. While there may be a place for some of that in modern teaching, the implication that it should equate to the whole of the learning experience is strange, if not repulsive.

And an influential argument this year about the future of school inspections has centred on concerns in some right-of-centre think tanks that the inspection service favours less traditional, less didactic forms of teaching.

In the end, the finalised version of the national curriculum, which was published last year, did feature the word “skills”. And the ugly “essential knowledge that all pupils should learn” phrase which I quote above did not survive in the assessment consultation paper’s final incarnation, published last month. 

But the “knowledge versus skills” debate remains important here in the UK, amid continuing worries that there is a policy blind spot towards skills which is not going to go away under this government.

Overall, I wonder whether this debate often generates more heat than light in arguments about the best direction of travel for our system.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist, specializing in investigating the examination and testing system and its implications for teaching. His work can be found published in the Guardian and the Times Education Supplement. He is the author of Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing.