Skills or Knowledge?December 2, 2011
I then argued that there were a number of recurring bad ideas about aims for education, that are basically non-academic. These were:
- Developing character
- Improving emotional well-being
- Fitting children to their future role in society
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