Thriller in Vanilla: Skills Vs Knowledge


Some people are advocating the teaching of transferable skills rather than content with a Google anything attitude, others are bristling their fur and insisting that teaching stuff is our job – insisting that ‘knowledge builds on knowledge’ (Prof E.D Hirsch).

I think that both sides of this argument may be wrong and the ‘false dichotomy’ argument is also detrimental to this debate. There is a difference between skills and knowledge and they do require different teaching approaches. The precluding of the one in favour of the other is the problem that I have.

The learning objective has taken a beating this year, David Didau shares his views and explains the Learning objective saga here. Excellent learning objectives highlight the flaws in the skills knowledge face-off. Learning objectives should highlight what a student will learn and what they need to use to do that. My learning objectives are therefore structured like this;

How can we “skill” using “tool“?

In such cases the tools are the content. This could be how can we “understand” Steinbeck’s characterisation of Slim using “Chapter Two of Of Mice and Men” or could be how can we “evaluate” the significance of hierarchy using “our understanding of Steinbeck’s characterisation of Slim“.

Both are challenging; the former having knowledge as the focus; the latter encouraging use of knowledge to evaluate. In Blooms terms the latter objective is ‘higher order’ and it has been highlighted that Blooms and his pyramid may be toppling by a number of people I respect. James Theobold makes an erudite case for the flaws in Blooms  here.

All new learning is hard, and we have all taught showcase lessons to appease non subject specialist observers where miraculously bottom set year 8 are showing rapid outstanding progress all the way up to evaluation – however in real terms this is not actual progress and it is not applying Blooms properly. Skills out of context, without content are meaningless. When thinking about Blooms in this way it all becomes meaningless.

Skills are nothing without knowledge and knowledge is useless without skills. Yes the students have evaluated, however this is without the cumulative learning from the rest of the pyramid.

The Blooms model still stands up with the “skill” using “content” approach to learning objectives as the understanding of content is a prerequisite for the utilisation of higher order skills like evaluating. We just need to ensure that we dont denegrate either aspect. We teach over time not from lesson to lesson.

I think you need to know stuff to do stuff properly – yes you can do without knowing but that is when doing is not done right. What do you think? Comments appreciated.


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