Home > Curriculum, Maths, Pedagogy, Teaching > Skills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?

Skills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?

A lot has been written on knowledge and skill, and the trade off that seems apparent in the debate. It’s a topic I’ve generally stayed away from, mainly because I’m a little confused about the whole thing. Recently, however, someone asked me my opinion on the matter and I wanted to try and get my thoughts in order.

Maths is….

When I was growing up my mother always said that I did better at maths than anything else because it was skills based, and I was too lazy to learn knowledge so skills based subjects were better for me. I never really questioned this, but before Christmas I heard an English teacher tell one of his students that English wasn’t like maths, it was a skills based subject rather than a knowledge based subject. This alternative views are something to ponder, is maths knowledge based or skills based?

Algebraic manipulation seems to be a skill, but that skill is really using the knowledge of the order of operations and inverse operations to manipulate formulae. It’s hard to imagine a maths syllabus that detaches the two. Solving geometric puzzles, such as this one, is a skill. But it’s a skill that is heavily rooted in the knowledge of trigonometry, Pythagoras’s Theorem, similar triangles, angle sums and many other things. Again, it’s hard to detach them. One don’t think maths is either, or maybe I should say it’s both?

I recently wrote this post on problem solving, and it seems to me to illustrate the close links between knowledge and skills in maths. The skills discussed in it are the skills of sketching and deduction, but without a good foundation of maths knowledge you can sketch and deduce till the cows come home, and still be no wiser.

Other subjects

I wondered if other subjects were the same. I thought about English, as I’d heard a colleague say it was skill based. This seemed to be a fair point at first, you write to analyse, to argue, to describe, surely these are skills? Well yes, but without knowledge of how to use the language, knowledge of a wider context, knowledge of other views, how can you do this competently?

What about History? It’s about knowledge right? You learn a load of dates and facts and regurgitate them? But no, actually you need to be able to analyse given sources and combine this with your knowledge to make a coherent argument.

The EPQ,  surely the pinnacle of skill only, you teach them the skills and away they go. Indeed, and here we can have a skill only curriculum, but each project will be rich with knowledge, it just will be different knowledge.

So what are you saying?

I’m not sure. I can’t see a way to separate skills from knowledge, so I can’t see what the fuss is about. Skills and knowledge depend on each other, and we need to ensure we are working on strategies to impart both onto our charges to prepare them for the future.

This post is part of the February 2015 #blogsync which has been inspired by James Mannion’s (@pedagog_machine) request for opinions on the topic as part of his research. You can read the other posts here, and you can read James’s Rationale on the idea here.

  1. bt0558
    January 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Not for me, but it seems to be so for some.

    Strangely those who are most dogmatic have in my experience been maths and schience teachers.

    Daniel Willingham seems to say something very similar to yourself. I once exchanged emails with him on the subject and his words were almost identical to yours in form, but exactly identical in meaning I think.

    In my view it is therefore only a contest for the dogmatic few who, for whatever reason, see the world “their way”, which they also see as the only way.

    I believe that the majority of teachers (in the UK at least) do not see the world in this way, are more eclectic and less solipsistic.

    I am not religious in any way. I see these types as being a bit like religious zealots who ramble on trying to persuade others of the efficacy of their faith. For me, people at the extreme ends of the Traditional/Progressive spectrum (which I believe this is about) are a bit like jehovah’s winesses. You dread them knocking on the door, you are polite to them while they ramble on and you get back to real life after they leave.

  2. January 17, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    My definition of “skill” would be something that you learn by practising, rather than can just be told. In this sense most subjects involve both knowledge and skills (although in different balances).

    The controversy over skills versus knowledge comes from when “skills” are used to mean generic competences like “creativity”, “thinking skills” or “problem-solving” that don’t really refer to anything in particular, and are used as an excuse to downgrade knowledge.

    • January 17, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      Aye, that certainly seems prominent in the debate. I don’t see how these skills can be taught without the underlying knowledge.

  3. January 17, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. January 18, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Skills are practised knowledge.

  5. January 18, 2015 at 11:10 am

    I think it changes as the children get older. For the mainly arithmetical activities/tests up to KS2 and even into KS3, pupils need to execute skills that can and should be practised just like scales and arpeggios for a musician. There will be tasks that require them to recognise which skill is needed, similar to seeing what key one is in when sight-reading, but this is still a skills-based subject where one can be successful without really understanding what you are doing.

    As children go deeper into KS3 and beyond, there are more rich tasks, needing knowledge of two or more topic areas and the ability to recognise them before any of the previously acquired skills can be trotted out.

    The worry with all the changes in recent years to GCSE and A-level syllabuses is that this interconnectivity is increasingly lost as the testing regime focuses more on replicable skills. In my experience, children are already poor at seeing those links across subjects such as graphing in science; if there is reduced attention to them within maths itself, they will lose out on key processes that they will need at university and beyond.

  6. January 18, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    The distinction is in what we choose to assess, or what we hope pupils take with them from school. For example, while history teachers will (now) claim they ‘teach knowledge,’ consider how history lessons in primary school, or even Years 7-9 focus on knowledge that is never again revisited.

    Yes, some new knowledge is conveyed during Years 10-11, but it is *only* this knowledge that is assessed, whereas, the thing that is expected to be built up over the 11 years in education is the skill-base of source analysis, explaining bias, inference etc.

    English is similar. Yes some knowledge is taught, but there is no agreement on what knowledge must be given to all students as a minimum, and as their birth-right. Instead, rather, that is left almost entirely up to each individual teacher, since the only things assessed across time are the ‘skills’ of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Again, knowledge content covered in Year 7 will not be revisited in Year 11 – it will be abandoned, and likely forgotten.

    What separates mathematics is that knowledge taught in Year 7, in Year 1 even, is revisited across the years, and assessed either explicitly or implicitly in Year 11. In this, we are arguably blessed – we at least have *some* agreement on what knowledge should be taught, and we go *some* way to continuing to ensure people hold on to that knowledge, rather than leaving it in the past. However we do *not* do this optimally, as we do not yet have 100% professional awareness that we’re doing it at all. For example, it is not necessarily common for pupils to be assessed for pure knowledge recall, yet those activities are both straight-forward and yield gains to the more complex ideas we want them to later engage with.

    This is why we need to be on our guard against claims made by people like Conrad Wolfram:


    His argument is compelling, since he has correctly diagnosed the symptoms of the problem. However like most commentators he’s failed to provide an effective solution; rather, his solution is the evisceration of knowledge from the maths curriculum, which would just dump onto us the same problems faced by English and the humanities. He would leave us with a generation who at best would be able to use the black-box computers, but have no understanding of how they worked; more likely though we would just have ever more people with ever less mathematical ability.

    • January 18, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      Indeed. Thanks for the comments Kris, I’m with you entirely!

  1. February 16, 2015 at 5:50 pm
  2. February 17, 2015 at 9:10 am
  3. February 21, 2015 at 9:10 pm

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