The real Knowledge debate

If I’m honest, I’m tired of all the arguing and barracking that goes on on Twitter about the supposed knowledge vs skills “debate”. It strikes me that there are very few teachers who suggest even for a second that knowledge is not important, and rather too many who are adamant that there are millions of that ilk.

I’ve mostly been on the sidelines of the whole thing for a few reasons.

Firstly, I don’t buy into the notion that there is anyone at either extreme, despite the fact that many claim it. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t think that part of their job was to impart knowledge, and I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t include some development of skills in their work, despite protestations to the contrary.

Secondly, it took me a while to work out where I stand. Like so many others, it seemed perfectly sensible to me that the shared wisdom that knowledge was easily available, whereas skills needing teaching, was a sensible approach to take. And indeed, I stand by that to some extent. Surely no-one could argue that we don’t need to develop a critical eye in students, for example? I know of many knowledgeable people who are nonetheless persuaded to buy, read, and worse believe, some of the nonsense they see written in the press. Knowledge itself is not a panacea.

Thirdly, I also can’t stand getting involved in silly playground arguments. I don’t tolerate them at school, and I’m certainly not going to encourage or engage in more at home.

However, I have, inevitably, seen much to-ing and fro-ing on Twitter and am beginning to draw my own frame of understanding. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the debate is not about knowledge vs skills at all; or at least, it shouldn’t be. I think it’s more about exposure vs instillation.

I am a huge fan of knowledge. It’s one of the things I love about teaching; it allows  me the opportunity to share knowledge and to gain more. Doubtless some colleagues and friends will happily confirm that I am, sometimes, too willing to impart what knowledge I have – whether or not it is requested. However, the more I look at what I have achieved over years of teaching materials, the more I wonder about the role knowledge played in my work.

For example, over the years of teaching History, despite what Mr Gove might think, I have frequently taught about Churchill, the Battle of Hastings, the myriad causes of the First World War, the signing of the Magna Carta, etc. But I can’t help but wonder how some of my former students might cope on a Premier Inn-style pop quiz of their knowledge.

In too many cases, I may have been guilty not of failing to include knowledge in my teaching, but of placing too much emphasis on the exposure to knowledge, and not enough emphasis on the real absorption and retention of that knowledge.

My recent thinking has unquestionably been shaped by reading Willingham’s fantastically readable analysis of cognitive science in education, but also by my broader awareness of the work of Hirsch and others. Now, let me state immediately, I am not in any way suggesting that I support an centrally-dictated framework knowledge which must be installed into all young minds at all costs. That is not my philosophy in the slightest. And for that reason, I still think it a tragic waste that the new curriculum focuses solely on knowledge, as if there were no progression of skill to be developed in our students.

I am, though, arguing that those of us who find such knowledge-rich,-everything-else-poor suggestions so disturbing, might nonetheless want to look just a little more deeply at how we do make use of knowledge in our classrooms. After all, if I think that the events of 1066 really are worth teaching, then aren’t they maybe also worth learning… even knowing?


6 thoughts on “The real Knowledge debate

  1. Harry Webb 9 July 2013 at 11:15 pm Reply

    I don’t see this as a playground argument at all and I worry that this kind of language may be seen as an attempt to shut down a vital debate. There are many influential educationalists – many of whom are responsible for training teachers – who are extremely ambivalent about the idea of imparting knowledge. Here is a good example of academics arguing against Gove’s curriculum on the basis of its knowledge content:

    If I disagree with this position, should I remain silent for fear of being characterised as somehow immature; involved in a playground argument? I don’t mind there being a debate. I wonder why some people find debate so uncomfortable in a liberal democracy?

    For my views on attempts to dismiss this debate, you may wish to read this:

    David Didau addresses these points here:

    I believe that both posts are measured, reflective and mature.

    • Michael Tidd 10 July 2013 at 5:46 am Reply

      Thanks for your response, Harry. Perhaps i should clarify that it is not the debate itself that I avoid, but rather the squabbling and name-calling that goes inI in its name via Twitter.
      I agree that the conversation itself is vital, but fear that it too often becomes lost among the noise of the argument. I have read both your post and David’s, and agree on their generally fair and reasoned approach.
      Nevertheless, I do still find that on to many occasions the bickering serves only entrench positions, rather than to lead others out of the darkness.

  2. Harry Webb 10 July 2013 at 8:26 am Reply

    Then that is a reasonable position to take. I just want recognition that debating this issue is legitimate. I will be interested in your future posts.

  3. philiprolt 12 July 2013 at 2:51 pm Reply

    I think this knowledge versus skills debate that has developed around the new national curriculum is most unhelpful. It also indicates that schools were delivering only what was in the curriculum. The national curriculum is supposed to be the common framework. I think that the best schools when the curriculum was skills rich were still layering on content. Children love to ‘know’ stuff. Likewise, the best schools working with the new curriculum will still layer on appropriate skills and not just teach the content.

  4. missmcinerney 18 July 2013 at 2:39 am Reply

    Michael – I think you’ve nailed the real debate here, which is the difference between exposure and deep learning. In our fight over k/s this issue has sometimes been lost, but it is probably the thing that more people have been getting wrong.

  5. […] that’s not something I’ve witnessed in my career, a point made by several people here, here and here. If you’ve been following the trend, or even if you haven’t, then there’s […]

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