Weasel Words #3: SkillsJuly 13, 2013
Some concepts, like knowledge, are very useful in education. Others, like self-esteem, are invariably harmful and used to justify failure to educate. However, there is another category of concepts. There are also ideas that frustrate debate through sheer ambiguity; that allow arguments to rest on equivocation. These are the Weasel Words.
A lot of the reaction to Daisy Christodoulou’s recent ebook has centred on the question of whether there is a conflict between teaching skills and teaching knowledge. Is it a genuine conflict, a misunderstanding or a false dichotomy deliberately used to mislead or confuse? I have given my views on this previously:
… 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.
Here I wish to look at this more closely by focussing on the extent to which our interpretation of the word “skills” define this debate and how a clear statement of what is meant by the word would help avoid some disagreements.
The first sense in which the word “skills” seems to be used, is a broad one. Almost anything a person is able to do, or at least anything they may be able to do as a result of learning, can be termed a skill. From this perspective it is hard to deny that schools should teach skills; to advocate skills is simply to state that education should enable students to do things. It is hard to conceptualise a clear conflict with knowledge from this definition, because even the driest academic knowledge can usually be applied to doing something, even if it’s just the learning of more academic knowledge. This lends itself easily to the position that the whole debate is a false dichotomy and everyone really agrees. Even an advocate of the most academic variety of education would never deny that students need the “skills” of being able to read, write and add up. However, the problem with this definition is that it resolves the debate only by brushing it under the carpet. A broad enough definition of skills will make everybody an advocate of skills, but it makes conflict about which type of skills inevitable and just as controversial as the debate it seeks to avoid. A further problem is that if being able to do something counts as a “skill” then almost any activity can be painted as the acquisition of a skill. Let kids play, then they are learning the skill of playing. Let them chat then they are learning social skills or speaking skills. Let them teach themselves then they are learning the important skill of being able to learn. Much of the pointless and unproductive activities students waste their time on in school are justified in these terms. We still have a disagreement here, over teaching, curriculum and methods, we have just renamed it so both sides can be seen as being on the “skills” side. Worse, if people change the definition of “skills” part way through an argument then they can use general acceptance of “skills” under this definition as grounds for advocating skills of another type.
A conception of skills which will make the differences clearer, is that of generic abilities which are not dependent on particular academic disciplines. This is where the conflict is most heated. Whereas the first understanding embraced almost anything, this one excludes almost any academic skill that can actually be nailed down and identified precisely. Terms like “social skills, thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving and communication skills” are perfect examples of this type of thinking. Every single one of the above is entirely dependent on context. There is no single set of social skills which is equally applicable to meeting the Queen and making friends laugh in a pub conversation. There are no thinking skills that apply equally to higher level mathematics and understanding Albanian. There is no capacity for problem-solving which applies equally to splitting the atom and working out who should play which position in your football team. As for communication, what would that be without content? It is under this definition that there is real and genuine conflict. Despite the serious lack of evidence that any teachable, transferable skills exist this is the standard excuse for forcing out content from academic disciplines. The idea that you study a subject because of abilities, dispositions or even virtues (such as “resilience”) which are more generally applicable is not harmful when used to justify studying a particular subject (although I am often sceptical about such claims) but it is toxic when used to evaluate one’s mastery of the subject or when the latest fad in skills, perhaps independence or cooperative learning, becomes the point of a lesson. To call this debate a “false dichotomy” is to hide from the real debate in education. This is the key dividing line and with this definition of skills there is most certainly a skills versus knowledge debate.
Thanks to these two different understandings of what skills are – one in which advocating skills to express only the blandest of uncontroversial statements and one in which it is to advocate a particular ideological position in the most heated part of education debate – it is tempting to think that the word “skills” is best avoided. It can only lead to confusion in which the two positions outlined above are confused, often deliberately, in order to obscure genuine conflict.
However, I think there is a third understanding in which the word is genuinely useful, although it is rarely explicitly stated. If we understand skills to be those abilities which are acquired through practice we probably come closest to how the word is used in real-life outside of the education debate. We can also see why it might be natural to refer to some of the outcomes of academic learning, such as reading and writing, or fluency with knowledge, as skills, without accepting that, say, there is such a thing as generic “thinking skills” or “social skills”. The linking of skills to practice undermines the idea that skills can be taught out of context as most practice takes place within a context, while still making it clear that there is more, even to academic subjects, than memorising lists of information. It also allows us to realise that the mix of skills and knowledge can vary drastically between school subjects and between parts of a subject depending on how important practice is. This may also be an important dividing line between academic disciplines and other school subjects. It also makes a nonsense of the idea that a skills-based curriculum can be expected to be academically rigorous or entertaining. Practise can be tedious and there is little that practise in an academic discipline can achieve without adequate knowledge to support it. If an activity is meant to help students learn a “skill” then the question to be asked is what are they practising. If there is a clear and precise answer and it is relevant, then teach that skill. If there is no answer, or the answer is so vague as to undermine the whole idea of practice, then the chances are the activity is a waste of time. I hope that it is with this definition that, at the very least, we can have some idea of how skills and knowledge actually interact.