It’s not skills – it’s know-how

I’ve never really engaged in the knowledge vs skills debate before. I thought I knew where I stood. I was certain that teaching required both knowledge and skills. But now I don’t think that’s true.

I blame my early career. I started my PGCE in 1996 and, in my first position of responsibility as second in English, I was in a pilot school for the National Literacy Strategy. I was completely convinced and even ended up in a training video demonstrating objective-led planning for the strategy. As a Head of Department I was at the forefront of developing APP and my department was recommended by literacy consultants in Derbyshire for an Ofsted Best Practice visit for what we’d achieved. The whole fabric of what I’d learned about teaching was based on the importance of transferable skills.

Of course, I knew that kids needed to know stuff. I was uneasy about decontextualised grammar, spelling and punctuation starters in the strategy – fifteen minutes of cardsorts and OHP transparencies, then on to the main lesson – as I felt it detracted from what we should be getting on with. But, when I was teaching Lord of the Flies or To His Coy Mistress I always thought I was using the text as a tool to teach the skills of literary analysis so the students could go away and apply them to other texts in the future. It never really occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching the text just as the text.

I've got better at tuning out the noise on Twitter

I’ve got better at tuning out the noise on Twitter

I’ve watched the debate ripple back and forth across twitter, supported by blog after blog. At times it’s felt very combative, and at times personal. I don’t think this has helped me to engage with the issues; rather it’s put me off and irritated me. However, as I’ve got deeper into the community I’ve fine-tuned my filtering system and sifted through the vitriol to what I think are the salient points. A few posts have been instrumental in this – Joe Kirby‘s and David Didau‘s amongst them. Tom Bennett has just this weekend continued the discussion in the TES with “I know therefore I can“.

David Didau’s journey as described in “Why the knowledge/skills debate is still worth having” has a lot in common with mine, only he got to where I am quite a long way before me. In fact, I remember scoffing loudly when I read his response to Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) in “Some dichotomies are real: the and/or debate“. In this post, the Learning Spy lays out his beliefs:

  1. Knowledge is transformational. You can’t think about something you don’t know. Once you know a thing it becomes possible to think about it. The thinking, in whatever form it takes, is a ‘skill’.
  2. Not all knowledge is equal. Some propositional knowledge has more power than other propositional knowledge.
  3. Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.
  4. Teaching procedural knowledge instead of, or separately from, propositional knowledge is of very limited use because most procedural knowledge only applies to specific domains. Whilst it may well be true that drama is great for developing resilience in drama, it not much use for developing resilience (or critical thinking) in, say, maths.
  5. There are grey areas. Learning is wonderfully complex and I certainly don’t know everything (or even all that much) but I do absolutely believe that knowledge must come before application. (from

It was point 3 that got me. “That’s cheating!” I thought. “All you’ve done there is re-name skills as a different sort of knowledge to get round the fact that we need both skills and knowledge!” That was where the scoffing kicked in.

Until I stopped to think.

Since I read that post about a month ago, I have had a slow epiphany (if such a thing it possible). I have realised that skills are a type of knowledge – that in teaching skills we are teaching “know-how”. My students need to know how to analyse a poem – and this is knowledge. They need deliberate practice to improve by applying this know-how in different contexts, and as they do so they build up networks of knowledge by finding connections between what they already know and what they are learning now. And the more they learn – the more they know – the stronger and more resilient those networks become.


Knitting together the threads of knowledge creates a resilient network

I’m sure many bloggers and teachers who read this will be staggered that I’m only realising this now, but it has taken some doing to unpick years of cultural assimilation in the skills academy. For anyone that started teaching when I did, teaching transferable skills is all we’ve ever known. If it wasn’t for the fact that I read blogs and think – really think – about what they say, it’s all I’d still know. But one thing I do know is that it’s important to be open to a different point of view, and to consider your own position carefully. I know how to do that.

This post has been added to #blogsync February 2015.

26 thoughts on “It’s not skills – it’s know-how

  1. Nice post, Chris. Not staggered – have spent a year working on the concepts for my doctorate, and I still don’t feel half-way ‘finished’.
    For further reading, may I suggest Lee Shulman. His was the first decent categorisation of knowlege forms I came across. He was employing the term ‘pedagogical content knoweldge’ a decade and a half ago. Formulaic, but allows for discursive engagement.

  2. I think one of the issues that people have with ‘knowledge’ is who controls what ‘knowledge’ our children are given access to or asked to remember. I wonder if the word ‘understanding’ would work better? I can understand ‘what’ (the things that are already known or that happened in the past) and I can understand ‘how to’ (the techniques I need to use). Often when the word knowledge is mentioned it is in a very specific context and it comes with a political and social slant (as in the recent spat over Mr Gove’s interpretation of our ‘knowledge’ about the First World War). In literature, while my understanding of the society in which a book was written might add to my reading of a book, the text exists separately and should be able to transcend its historical context. I’m still pondering this one and I still have an awful lot of questions. I’m glad you have been able to come to some kind of answer that works for you.

    • Thanks Sue. Yes – this is the tip of the iceberg and the different types of knowledge we require are myriad and complex. Understanding is a useful concept in that (IMHO) we connect up knowledge we have to arrive at a fuller understanding – thus knowledge of context helps us to understand a novel better, even if the novel itself does stand alone.

    • Don’t think so Sue. Understanding is about linking different pieces of knowledge together to provide the realisation that we ‘understand’ something. One can have knowledge with very little of what one would call understanding. It is all knowledge and once one sees that truth the paradigm shift can happen.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I’ve been using the “know how with show how” mantra for some time. To me that summarises a number of issues in education. We should work with real stuff and give children stuff about which to think, then to use and apply appropriately.
    I am not sure the analogy with unpicking a book is the same as knowing a specific fact in science for example, as the process (skills) of unpicking can be applied to another text.
    The knowledge issue stumbles, for me, when specific facts are selected by others as the important ones. I have always found that out of a planned direction, there’s usually a point where a diversion is in order because of the needs of the children at the time.
    There’s certainly a lot of thinking going on. Probably more than at any time in my career, with the easy means to disseminate widely.
    Be well,

  4. Thanks for this Chris – it’s fab to see other teachers going on the same journey as me. There’s no turning back now!

    One quibble though: point 3 isn’t cheating, it’s just a helpful way of engaging in the knowledge/skills debate – we still know what we mean. The change for me has been around the fact that I now see teaching generic poetry skills as a bit of a waste. I’d far rather teach about a poem. When we know something we can think about it. Just being able to analyse without rich knowledge leads to bland, superficial analysis.

    Sue’s point about ‘whose knowledge’ is moot. The freeing thing about cultural capital is that it’s not down to personal preference, it’s what we’ve decided we value over time. Our job as teachers is, in my opinion, to give our students access to culturally rich rich knowledge and them show them how to critique it.

    Cheers, David

    • Thanks David. My argument about point 3 was that my initial reaction was “that’s cheating,” only to realise on reflection that, in fact, you had a point. Skills are in fact knowledge – “know-how” – and your description of teaching about a poem is exactly where I’ve got to. Eventually.

      I appreciate the comment – thanks again!

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  6. Knowing how to ice skate and actually being able to do it are different things.

    One is knowledge and the other is a skill. Being able to ice skate is not the same as being able to.

  7. LOL. Of course my error will be obvious.

    Being able to ice skate is in fact the same as being able to.

    Being able to ice skate is not however the same as knowing how to.

  8. Interesting reflections Chris. I’m basically with you on this. There is a difference between knowing how to measure things in science in theory, and developing the skill to do it in practice. My main question is whether having had this epiphany you will now teach differently? If so, what will be the changes? If not, does it matter whether you now regard skills as know-how? If doesn’t change practice, the argument is superfluous. For some people I imagine the difference could be quite radical but what about you?

    • Thanks for the comment Tom – I’ve taken a day to think about it, which is a sign that it was really thought-provoking!
      I think there is a fundamental shift in the way a plan the curriculum. For example, in the skills curriculum the text to which I was applying the skills was really irrelevant. In the skills model it doesn’t matter whether you’re studying Macbeth or Eastenders to explore the theme of overreaching ambition – indeed, I wrote a pretty polemical PGCE essay in 1997 arguing that exact point. In the knowledge model the choice of material really does matter. As an English and Media teacher I will defend vociferously the importance of studying pop culture texts alongside canonical literature, but the idea that they are in some way interchangeable (which I have held for a long time) has gone. There are certain elements of analytical know-how that can be applied to a Lady Gaga video or a T.S. Eliot poem, but analysing one is not the same as analysing the other.
      This really comes down to what I said in the blog:
      “when I was teaching Lord of the Flies or To His Coy Mistress I always thought I was using the text as a tool to teach the skills of literary analysis so the students could go away and apply them to other texts in the future. It never really occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching the text just as the text.”
      This is where the difference comes for me – the idea that skills are inherently transferable is a fallacy. What I need to teach children is the knowledge of how to approach a particular task, but the real test comes when they have to adapt that knowledge to new contexts. This is where my practice will change – rather than frustratedly whining “why aren’t they transferring the skills?” it is important explicitly to teach the application of the know-how.

      This is a bit rambling because, even after a day of percolation, it’s still half-formed. I may well devote a whole post to it!

      Thanks Tom – really got my brain working….

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  10. Hello Chris – I’ve been thinking about this too and have written my thoughts down recently, including some thoughts about ‘I know……’ . I’d be happy if you’d have a look and tell me if it’s useful to you. What do we mean by knowledge, information, know-how etc.? David Didau said “Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.” I think if we call the first ‘know-how’ (context related knowledge produced at the time) and the second ‘know-what’ (factual information) it’s understandable that that high quality know-how depends on a good range of know-what. But just because what my child at three produces as know-how seems to be amateurish, even incorrect, to us older sophisticates (… confidently tells me that jumble-jets have two fans) doesn’t mean I’m not going to allow him to do any imaginative story telling about travel until he has all the relevant factual aeronautical information correctly stored, he’s 17 and he’s passed an exam in it. As teachers we’ve been caught by the ‘brain-as-computer’ model and are struggling with the concept as it doesn’t necessarily apply to a whole person in a non-experimental situation. Our purpose as teachers is to foster growth, the psychologists purpose is to examine experimental hypotheses. Know-what and know-how go together in continuous action and feedback; it’s almost as if they had an adaptive biological function. Sorry to be commenting a week after you posted. Thanks for your thinking.

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