Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having

‘I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike’.

Maya Angelou

I’ve come an awful long way since September 2011 when Cristina Milos took the time to point out that my view on the teaching of knowledge and skills were seriously skewed. I’m flabbergasted that, as an experienced teacher, I could have been so ignorant. I said at the end of that post that “I guess my conclusion isn’t that skills are more important than knowledge: rather that both are required for mastery of a subject.” But I didn’t really believe it. If you scroll down the comments of the that post you can see how politely and tolerantly Old Andrew points out that maybe I had it wrong.

Two months later I posted this, in which I advocated SOLO taxonomy as a means of squaring the knowledge/skills circle. The sad fact was that I really had very little idea about teaching beyond the experience of my own classroom. I’m a reasonably intelligent and articulate individual and considered it reasonable to believe that what I knew was some way representative of what was true. And indeed it seemed so: most of the teachers who responded to my blogs were positive and sympathetic. but it shocked me to come across people who dismissed what I held dear as pap.

I carried on with the SOLO taxonomy line for a while despite one or two concerns at how it was misappropriated until considering this question: What happens when a student “establishes a relational construct which is wrong”? The answer, of course, is to go back to their store of knowledge and correct the misapprehension. This led, inexorably, to the realisation that the usefulness of SOLO was entirely dependent on the quality of knowledge students possessed. Students are asked to make relational connections and abstract constructions at every Key Stage and beyond. The only difference is the quality of what they know. Finally, the penny dropped; teaching students how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have some thing to analyse. And if this sounds blindingly obvious to you, consider the fact that I had been teaching for well over a decade and was a head of department.

What I’m clumsily and longwindedly trying to say is that anyone out there who feels discussing the importance of knowledge in teaching (especially in teaching English) is a distracting irrelevance is probably unaware that for the vast majority of teachers all this is going to comes as rather a shock. By and large, those who tweet and blog are at the cutting edge of thought and discussion in education, comparatively speaking. We have our fingers resting lightly on the pulse of cognitive science and we know whereof we speak. [style note: flowery prose indicates irony] If after consideration of all this you arrive at a position where you can align yourself with a constructivist approach to teaching, then I applaud you; you have obviously considered the pros and cons and have arrived at a more or less informed decision. The right and wrong of it doesn’t matter nearly so much as having had the discussion.

But whenever you’re feeling judgemental about this essential debate cropping up on Twitter yet again, remember this: you are not typical. Most teachers have never, through little fault of their own, considered that some of the fundamental premises of how they teach are in doubt. Without access to the collective wisdom of Twitter it’s actually quite hard to find stuff out. Most CPD is still about how to talk less and show progress in 20 minutes. How do I know? Last week I attended three training events and told teachers about the Teaching Sequence for Developing Independence I’ve been writing about and they were stunned. Not because this stuff is revolutionary or groundbreaking in any way, but because it’s common sense. We have all suspected that a lot of what we’re told by SLT about what they think Ofsted might want is obviously bonkers. But we sigh, and shrug and admit that well, hey, what do we know? These guys are the experts and clearly they must know what they’re on about.

Mustn’t they?

It’s now clear to me that if we want to stop the predations of snake oil salesmen and Ofsted whisperers we must reclaim our expertise. We must boldly and confidently state that no one knows our students in our classrooms better than we do. We need to be able to counter any accusations that we talked too much or that our students were insufficiently independent by explaining that here is where they will be independent and in order for that to happen I need to actually teach them here. And if anyone ever feedbacks back on a lesson observation by saying “I wouldn’t have done it like that. I’d have done ….” we need to find a polite but assertive way to ask them to explain precisely how and why their views differ from Ofsted’s supremo, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s.

As many have observed, the debate is circular: of course procedural knowledge is equally important as propositional knowledge. But that you and I have acknowledged this truth is not the point. All teachers all need to find our own way to it and make their own peace with it. That the destination is already known to some, doesn’t mean others should not embark on the journey. The aim is always to think.

So, if we want to be taken seriously we need to know what we’re talking about. Sapere aude – dare to know!

I’ve dug this out and submitted it for the January 2015 #blogsync on Knowledge vs. Skills.

13 Responses to Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having

  1. Geraint Wilton says:

    Couldn’t agree more that the debate is worth having again and again. The more we think about this the better as professionals, not least because we have get to get to grips with the variation in learning styles between subjects, individuals and even teachers. I also agree that we need to find and defend our own authenticity in the classroom, David Wilshaw seems to affirm precisely that. What a great shame that current inspections do not accord with his values; they are seeking a one size fits all model, they are critiquing staff for doing the things that he says are of value and they are imposing damning judgments on the basis of these things.

  2. Juli Morgan-Russell says:

    I also agree … I too am a Head of English and I sometimes feel as if I really am not in charge of what goes on. I loved your thoughts that ‘We all need to find our own way to it and make our own peace with it’ – we do need to constantly think and be adaptable.
    Our world is constantly changing – the students’ world is constantly changing – but we will always need to know stuff!

    Love the blog – it continually brings me back to why I entered the profession; and in these days of doubt, that’s a great thing!

  3. David Didau says:

    Thank you both – always great to know that there’s folk out there that appreciate what I’m writing.

  4. […] Reblog ‘I note the obvious differences between each sort & type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike’.  […]

  5. […] Some thoughts on learning styles The problem with fun Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having […]

  6. […] to be critical of theory and to investigate its impact. It’s vital that new teachers have the knowledge/skills debate and start to think about why they are teaching as well as how best to achieve their aims. Trainees […]

  7. […] know better saying they’re bored with the false dichotomy of skills versus knowledge. The knowledge vs skills debate is always worth having because it conceals a more fundamental disagreement (a real dichotomy, if you will.) about […]

  8. […] It’s not what you know…oh hang on, it IS what you know Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having […]

  9. […] The belief that a good teacher can teach anything reveals that the trivialisation of subject knowledge is alive and well and doing business in a school near you. Is belief wrong? Well, yes, that’s certainly my opinion.  I’m very happy for you to disagree with me on this, but for that to happen we’d have to allow that the skills/knowledge debate is still worth having. […]

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] Progressive vs Traditionalist vs Professional by Mark McCourt The need for ‘Why To’ guides Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having […]

  12. […] ‘I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike’. Maya Angelou I’ve come an awful long way since September 2011 when Cristina Milos took the time to point out that my view on the teaching of knowledge and skills were seriously skewed. I’m flabbergasted  […]

  13. […] David Didau: Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ and Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: