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.