I’ve tended to steer clear of the knowledge-vs-skills debates for several reasons. Firstly, there seem to be no winners, just entrenched views by-and-large – although see this blog by Chris Hildrew for a notable exception. Secondly. I’ve never seen that it had much to offer my teaching. My views have been sculpted over time by various things I’ve seen, read and done, but I didn’t really feel that I had anything worthy of note to say that hadn’t already been said.
I probably still don’t, but this thought has been playing on my mind for a few days and so I’m putting out there anyway.
Many wiser than me have pointed out that ” skills” is a hard thing to define, but then I’m not sure “knowledge” is any easier. That said, there have been several examples that have come to my mind lately that clearly suggest that the lack of the latter can easily lead to a failure at the former. And I think most teachers know and recognise this, even if they don’t see it for what it is.
This term, when trying to teach my class to calculate area of rectangles, it has become painfully clear to them why I have been banging on about times tables for so long. Suddenly, that seemingly discrete, unconnected and apparently meaningless list of numbers has made the difference between those who can focus on finding structure and breaking down complex shapes, and those who struggle to record accurate answers for standard rectangles. The skill of calculating area is dependent on the knowledge of tables facts.
And the fact is that this sort of issue replicates itself constantly.
- The kids who struggle with the skill of reading scales are the ones who aren’t confident with the knowledge of halves and doubles, or division by ten.
- The kids who struggle with the skill of employing advanced punctuation are the ones who don’t have a secure knowledge of what a clause is.
- The kids who found it hardest to write an essay about the Battle of Hastings were not the weaker writers, but those who lacked the knowledge of the key events.
- The kids who struggle with the skill of inference in every-day texts are the ones who lack the knowledge of key vocabulary
- The student who plays their instrument most effectively in my music group is the one who knows the system of notes on a score.
- The students who know the key periods of history are the ones who are most able to make connections between their learning.
- Students who know the most common symbols on an OS map find the skill of interpreting the map so much more straightforward.
The list could be endless. Knowledge may well not be the be-all-and-end-all, but it certainly goes a very good way to giving the students I teach the necessary background to be able to skilfully do a whole range of things. Of course, this fits with those who argue that knowledge precedes skill, and also those who argue that both are necessary.
But it certainly rules out the suggestion that learning facts is of no use!