Open Thinkering


Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

Gnome heads

Back when I was a lowly trainee teacher I engaged in a debate with someone high up in the local authority after a training session. They were arguing that ‘skills’ are all we need to teach young people. I argued (as a History teacher) that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, however, I realise that we were both wrong.

This post by Oliver Quinlan about A.C. Grayling’s presentation at the recent Education Festival got me thinking. Especially this bit:

What we should be looking for is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of understanding. Many schools recognise that theory of knowledge and learning about learning are supportive of the rest of the curriculum. Grayling feels that this should be at the centre of the curriculum, not as an added extra.

And then yesterday, Tim Riches tweeted me the link to this post, pointing out how scary it is that the government are preventing people from talking about ‘skills’ in a curriculum review:

Among the wilder, though double-sourced by me, rumours I’ve heard about the curriculum review were that the word “skills” was banned from any documents by ministers, simply because they wanted to emphasise “knowledge”. While I am not going to get into the knowledge versus skills debate here, suffice it to say that most university prospectuses stress the importance of both.

But then I realised. What we should be developing in young people are capacities. Skills and knowledge flow from these.

It’s what employers look for when hiring people. It’s why we have phrases like “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” We recognise that certain people have greater capacities in certain areas than others.

I look forward to seeing an education system that promotes capacities.

(oh, and when we get there, we should award badges) 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA amy_b

14 thoughts on “Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

  1. Great post! Who knows what the skills the children in education (especially Primary) will need by the time they leave school! We need to make sure that the future work force can cope with whatever the ever changing world throws at them! 

  2. Moar great grist. As per usual.

    Adding attitudes to my mix Doug. Technology is an attitude. I sit comfortably with that as a mandatory core. Skills, capacity and deep inderstanding follow more easily when technology is grounded in our highly variable attitudinal contexts. Attitudes also support the neccessary, sometimes painful, cracks and ultimately allows the fish to not see the water. It just is. Nothing special, it just is.

  3. Agree completely Doug. Capacities, competencies – whatever gets us away from the sterile, polarised discussion re skills v knowledge (as though there’s a choice to be made). Only problem is, can you think of a politician who would be able to steer a ‘capacity -based’ curriculum?

    And if they don’t understand it, they don’t want to allow it!

  4. I would add experiences – sitting in a lecture room listening to some old codger blether on used to be a good way of transmitting information but now we have YouTube

  5. I agree Doug. Skills should not be ignored. Interestingly, the ICT National Strategy of a decade ago or more placed emphasis on skills and *capabilities*. Capabilities is not that different to capacities you mentiom in this post. The root being understanding rather than knowledge. What tool to use for any given problem. Is it possible that practitioners back then were ahead of the curve?

  6. Although ‘capacities’ seem a bit abstract, it does align with a lot of the contemporary talk from the likes of Michael Wesch, et al, around being able to respond to/in unfamiliar situations, problem solve, etc, etc. 

    However, that can’t be the goal in place of skills and understanding, which we still have to teach/foster. In fact, I think Understanding is a pre-requisite for Skill (there’s no point being able to serve a shuttlecock into a particular region of the court, or hit the ball with a particular part of the foot, if you don’t know why should do it). The same applies to all ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’ (which was a key term I remember from school teaching all those years back!).

    Rightly or wrongly, these are ‘comfortable’ (for want of a better word) because our education system and employers can measure them through traditional evidence and assessment. Capacities are perhaps a bit different I think?

  7. Agree that Skills, Knowledge, Understanding and Attitudes are all rather clumsy ways of describing the complexity of learning.  If you observe outstanding teachers in action they teach the content they need to by employing activities that engage learners and build their competencies.  Too high a concentration on Knowledge and you get teaching to the test.  Too high a concentration on Skills and you fail to engage passion.

    Definitions of good teaching have been flowing out of the US for the past three years and they are arguing for 70% skills 30% knowledge as an ideal mix.  Research in the UK has come up with 80:20.  Vygosky put it at 80:20, Bloom at 40:60.  I had the opportunity to ask headteachers of outstanding schools from over 40 countries and the pretty consistent aspiration was 80:20 in favour of skills.

    Over the past 12 years I have been combining the definitions of skills from all over the world to try and get to a definitive description.  The current version of this set is in use in over six countries now and I have recently made it available free on the web at please feel free to use them in any form you like as long as you acknowledge the source.

    It is not hard for teachers to start building these skills into their lessons and there is no end of research showing that we really need to do this.  The problem comes when assessing progress in these skills.  It is the lack of robust assessment systems that has led the UK government to remove them from their requirements because Gove is clearly only interested in monitoring standards and for the moment this means exam results, literacy and numeracy.

  8. Capacities are: — Ability to Self manage, Effectively contribute to society, be Creative, be a Reflective lifelong learner, able to use the net and other sources to conduct balanced Enquiry and able to work collaboratively in Teams – see further definitions of these SECRET capacities at or look to European essential capacities, Australian curriculum, New Alberta state Curriculum, UK PLTS etc.  I combined 54 sets to get to the common one – most define them in similar ways.

  9. I like the idea of “capacities,” and to me, a capacity must be functionally defined. There might be a lot of “stuff” that contributes to a capacity, but ultimately, the capacity must be something that is observable and measurable; an outcome performance, if you will.  And then we must know what teaching/training is necessary to establish that capacity.  How do we build a capacity and ensure that it can be applied?

  10. (a gardening analogy for education) 4 year olds enter formal education (in general) as inquisitive and lively individuals – perfect growing conditions for learning (before we kill this). Perhaps, instead of labelling skills, knowledge and capabilities, we should be  considering the twin challenges of what topics our learner should be exposed to and how we can maximise the growing/learning conditions that enable learning.  The crucial element is learners’ motivation that is intrinsic until it is killed by environmental factors.  Assessment / badges are extrinsic and useful as motivators but persuasion and engagement are more important IMHO for the sometimes  limited influence that educators can exert.

    1. I completely agree that examining the learning environment to encourage curiosity and grow inquisitiveness is key. I think the other part of the question too is then figuring out a way to evaluate whether or not that environment works in enabling learning. How can we measure that learning in order to improve our practices?

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