Skills or Knowledge?

December 2, 2011
I’ve been exploring the same issue – the aim of education – for most of this year. Back in January, I observed that debate over teaching methods was plagued by attempts to change the aims of education to justify the method, rather than consider the method to meet the aims.

I then argued that there were a number of recurring bad ideas about aims for education, that are basically non-academic. These were:

My view is that while education might do all of these, they are by-products rather than aims, and each is potentially destructive if made into an explicit aim.

Then I looked at what the aim of education should be  and concluded that education should be about making kids smarter. I admitted that this had to be defined relative to culture and argued that this would have to include significant knowledge. I also pointed out that some of the fashionable properties of a developed intellect, such as a) understanding b) thinking skills c) creativity d) autonomy and e) inspiration, either could not be easily distinguished from the skills that come from knowledge, or where they could be they were actually not helpful.

Before I leave this topic, I think it is worth noting that the debate is often phrased in different ways. In particular, distinctions are made between types of knowledge and between knowledge and skills that are used to restate traditional anti-knowledge arguments in new ways.

The first way is to ask “Should we teach knowledge or skills?” I think it is clear from what I have argued above I think I have made a case in favour of knowledge. I have also critiqued quite a number of alleged skills which are taught in the place of knowledge. However, I can’t leave it at that as it is quite common for people, having set the question, to accept that knowledge is still important, but to claim that it is a false dichotomy and that we should actually be teaching both. On the face of it there is a certain amount of truth to this. We cannot avoid accepting that students should be developing skills of some description. When I endorsed the teaching of knowledge I was not endorsing rote, I was endorsing the teaching of knowledge which was to be used and understood. This can be termed as “skills”. I also accepted that there was a place for learning the arts, which again can be termed as “skills”. However, we should hesitate to accept at face value the arguments of people who say “teach both” as if they were two separate things, because they can then advocate occupying children with pointless activities or games and call it “skills-based” teaching.

Knowledge versus skills is not a false dichotomy; it is a badly expressed one. The debate is better expressed as “should we teach knowledge or generic skills?” It is skills which don’t correspond to an individual discipline, but are contentless fudge, that are the enemy of knowledge. If we have to let the word “skills” into our educational vocabulary we should not let anyone be ambiguous about what they mean by it, and we should be aware that any movement based around skills, even skills with a place for knowledge, is likely to be about dumbing-down unless specifically referring to subject-relevant skills.

An additional piece of jargon which can be used to obscure the debate and bring in generic skills by the back door is “deep knowledge”. It is fairly obvious that information is not much good if it is not understood, or if it is known so weakly that it cannot be applied. Fluency and understanding is absolutely vital to knowledge. If this is what is meant by “deep knowledge” then I am very happy with it. If “shallow knowledge” is used to mean rote learning then I have already endorsed deep knowledge over shallow. However, sometimes the claim is made that all methods which emphasise knowledge are “shallow” and in order to make knowledge “deep” we need to explicitly teach understanding, thinking skills, creativity, autonomy or inspiration. Again, we have the situation where it is claimed that knowledge is important, but in practice it is being sidelined.

In my experience, the most important test of whether people are opposed to knowledge and content is the one of subject boundaries. Subjects are useful ways of organising knowledge, and continue to be useful until the most advanced levels of academia where inter-disciplinary work may open up new ideas. Where there is respect for knowledge there will be respect for the framework given by subjects. Those disciplines may at times run together, particularly when moving from specific examples to more general concepts, but this is something that develops from mastering those discrete disciplines, it is not a convenient starting point for study.

As Hirst (1974) put it:

A liberal education approached directly in terms of the disciplines will … be composed of the study of at least paradigm examples of all the various forms of knowledge. This study will be sufficiently detailed and sustained to give genuine insight so that pupils come to think in those terms, using the concepts, logic and criteria accurately in the different domains. It will then include generalisation of the particular examples used so as to show the range of understanding in the various forms. It will also include some indication of the relations between the forms where they overlap and their signficiance in the major fields of knowledge, particularly the practical fields which have been developed.

However, anybody seeking to teach generic skills and sideline knowledge, will not appreciate the importance of subjects. They will seem like arbitrary divisions. Those who want to dumb down will emphasise “cross curricular links” and “thematic projects”. They will often provide frameworks for “skills”, frequently called a “taxonomy”, in which very different skills are grouped together with no respect for subject boundaries because of superficial resemblances and a hierarchy is created in which the contentless generic skills are placed higher than subject knowledge. They will also use variations on the slogan “I teach children not a subject”. What this really means is “I teach children, but what I teach them is anybody’s guess”. If anyone asks you “Do you teach your subject, or do you teach children?” I would recommend answering by saying: “I teach my subject to children”.


Hirst, Paul, H. (1974) Knowledge and the Curriculum, Routledge and Kegan Paul


  1. Lucid and meaningful. Should be compulsory reading for all teachers.

  2. i always enjoy the latest old andrew essay. they are always so well written. there was a time when i would have argued with old andrew on this subject but having read his expanded view i am now content to concur. and i love the finishing flourish. bravo.

  3. I have one problem. Why only twice a month or so? Every day, I rush eagerly to the website, only to find no new posting. Tears splash on to my keyboard as I am reduced to a quivering mass of misery.

    I suggest that everyone who reads these posts should contribute large amounts of money to Mr OA to enable him to give up teaching and spend all his time writing blog posts…though I do realise that after a few decades, he might have lost touch with the electronic whiteboard face. Still, it’s a risk worth taking.

    • Thanks and nice idea. Unfortunately it is inspiration not time that is in short supply at the moment.

  4. Terminology is always a problem – wasn’t sure if I agreed at the start, but was certain I did by the end. With apologies to Kant, information without skills is blind, skills without information is empty. You need both *integrally* for knowledge. You can’t teach skills without teaching them in relation *to* something.
    I also agree re subjects. I think students may get insights from one subject and apply them to another, but I think this is only useful if the student does it. It’s very noticeable in third level that different subjects require different approaches, different vocabulary, even different tool-sets. Surely this is true at all levels. If wishing to impart “rigour” surely what that means varies for Maths and for English. I’m now wondering how else you could possibly teach it.
    Thanks for the food for thought.

  5. rob
    I do hope that you don’t teach English.

  6. Over the years of my teaching experience the movement has always been to read fewer and fewer texts. The texts have become shorter, the quality diminishes and now the “graphic novel” is seen as the equivalent of a “real” book. Novel and plays are replaced by film, poetry by songs, essays by cartoons. Examination based on texts have been replaced by multiple choice tests on parts of a newspaper article or a poster.
    Part of the justification for this is that the course is aimed at teaching literacy skills or visual literacy. Part of the justification is that we don’t have the money to buy books for every student. (And we don’t.)
    A rich and beautiful culture is being ignored. It is our English culture that is being ignored. Students haven’t read anything but Harry Potter, and most of them are lying – they watched the movie. Simple texts are dissected in forensic detail and complex texts are ignored as elitist anachronism or simplified to oblivion.
    Reading books, which was once the base of our education, doesn’t even seem to be on the agenda.

  7. *Simple texts are dissected in forensic detail and complex texts are ignored as elitist anachronism or simplified to oblivion.*

    I see this even in my district’s elementary school curriculum. The weekly unit’s reading passage is read over and over and analyzed for certain specific skills of the week. (main idea and supporting details, summarizing, characterization). But the passages are…dull or unappealing to the age group, simple (but with remarkably convoluted questions to be asked from the scripted curriculum), and unconnected to the previous passage or the one upcoming.

    It’s hard to see how any child who isn’t exposed to real reading and books at home would find reading to be anything but a horrible chore. And sadly, that seems to be what happens.

  8. When did “pupils” (Hirst above) become students (5 mentions)?

    Are schoolchildren really students?

    I now teach mostly HE at an FE college and we try to get the undergraduates to study their subject. We also encourage them to read books about it, not just Web pages.

    But I cannot claim that many of our undergraduates can properly be described as individuals who study.

    Is this another form of inflation, like grade inflation?

  9. paysan,
    no i don’t.
    but i assume you are in jest- I wouldn’t imagine for a moment you are petty enough to correct someones grammar/typos on an informal medium like a blog.

  10. A brilliant quote

    “Why teach them about the Battle of Hastings when they have got Google?”

    Why indeed?


  11. I don’t think it’s “A brilliant quote” – I think it’s (apologies for the crudity) crap. I run a national general knowledge quiz for secondary schools, so might be expected to dislike anything which downgrades factual knowledge – but that’s not the reason. This enthusiasm for de-emphasising knowledge is rather similar to that fashion when calculators came in: “No need to teach them arithmetic – the calcuators will do all that.” Unfortunately, without a knowledge of the processes of calculation and the expected result, children had no way of telling whether they were inputting the correct figures and using the appropriate algorithm – and after a few years of this, the exam boards introduced non-calculator modules into all public exams.

    The same thing happens with factual knowledge. Of course one can look anything up on the Internet – but without a basis (and a much broader one than Mr Fisher, the head quoted in the link given above, is acknowledging), how can one know what to look up? How can one discriminate between accurate and inaccurate information? How is it possible to weave one’s discoveries into a whole garment of understanding when the latter doesn’t exist?

    In the general knowledge competition mentioned above, I’ve found over the last 26 years of running the National Finals that the most brilliant minds frequently belong to the most knowledgeable competitors, and vice versa. It’s not always true: I’ve known some astoundingly intelligent people who have little general knowledge (though not, normally, the other way round). But derogatory references to Edwardian education (though I suppose it’s a change from Gradgrind) would be more convincing if we could show that we were actually producing a generation of students who out-perform those great-grandparents in comparable tasks. And I think it would be very hard to show this to be the case.

    • ‘Brilliant’ as in: great source, memorable and makes the point.

      • Ah – you meant that the quotation epitomises one of the most stupid of our current educational dogmas! I agree, and apologise if I appeared to be criticising you.

        • That’s alright, I wasn’t clear.

    • I spend much of my non-teaching time setting questions for broadcast quizzes, and exactly the same is true of adults.

      Indeed, the trend in contemporary quizzes is for many questions to include a puzzle element, so that contestants have to do something with their knowledge, rather than just recall it. Again, though, those who have the broadest knowledge are also those most adept at manipulating it (and not just because they can recall it in the first place).

  12. och…this sort of thing infuriates me- what a silly example of demonisation

    im not a devotee of the tories nor labour but no secretary for education ever has or ever will want education to be 100% skills or 100% facts.

    its just shades of grey. for this head to say the government wants kids to just know ‘facts’ like mini Gradgrinds is moronic.

    and 60 trips? per year? wtf?

    and yet another reference to SATS. Will someone please explain to me why 90 mins of testing at the end of y6 is disruptive to a kids education? (yep its just 3 x 30 mins- oh the child abuse!)

    yet this guy is happy to take the kids on 90 trips- no interruption to learning there then?- thats a lot of time on a coach!)

  13. my last comment related to caroline’s link

  14. An old thread now but great to read.
    The newest versions of A Levels and GCSEs have been designed to be more skills based. I teach history and politics and although the skills examined arguably are subject specific, the mark schemes separate knowledge from skills. True, one does mark essays that are well structured without much knowledge and vice versa but the distinction examiners need to make is largely artificial. Our A2 politics essays get a whopping 4 different numerical marks. For content,synopticity, evaluation and structure. This is not just impractical, it’s farcical.In our AS history essay mark schemes (mercifully only two judgements needed) content is separated from structure/analysis and so, naturally content gets fewer marks allocated. For our AS history document paper I was told at inset that a bright analytical physics student who has not studied history should be able to get a C. In other words it is largely a critical thinking exercise.
    Its ironic that the very people that claim to be supporting education that leads to things like ‘deep learning’ have actually created a system in which teachers must drill students in the criteria of the mark scheme. If we don’t drill our students to jump through specific hoops then A candidates really do get Ds.

  15. […] a misunderstanding or a false dichotomy deliberately used to mislead or confuse? I have given my views on this […]

  16. […] don’t think it matters much whether this is a skill, or an accumulation of knowledge. Old Andrew makes the distinction between the sort of skills I’m talking about, and generic skills which […]

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