Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our education system isn’t quite up to snuff. And at that point virtually all agreement ceases. There are those on which we might loosely term the ‘right’ of the divide who point to PISA scores, claim that we’re in the middle of a crisis and suggest that a return to traditional values is the way forward. Oh, and Free Schools are good too. Then there are the proponents of the ‘left’ who think that the current emphasis of schools does not fit us for a future in which compliance will no longer be rewarded.

Maybe at the heart of this debate is a fundamental disagreement about the curriculum and pedagogy. Should education be about getting students to know more facts or should it be about encouraging them to solve problems? Knowledge or skills? I first wrote about this a month or so back and have really been thinking about it al lot since.

I am, by instinct, a constructivist; that is, one who believes that students should construct their own meaning and discover new knowledge by doing. This slots in neatly with the PLTS agenda. The more traditional approach is termed ‘direct instruction’, often misrepresented as some sort of Gradgrindian, didactic, teacher led talking from the front, but is in fact the essence of the modern three (or four) part lesson where the teacher decides the objectives and success criteria; models how tasks should be completed; provides feedback and finally reviews the learning objective. Now the bad news for constructivists is that direct instruction is shown by researchers to be the most effective strategy for transmitting knowledge and has the biggest effect on students’ grades. So where does that leave discovery learning, problem solving and inquiry based teaching? Are they simply surplus to requirements?

Well, that’s what the ‘right’ would have us believe: students collaborating in teams is messy, time consuming and ineffective. And maybe that’s true. But it boils down to what you think the point of education is. Is it to ensure that students take exams that test how good they are at regurgitating knowledge, following instructions and passing exams? Or is it to produce learners who can solve problems; think creatively and compete in a world where white collar jobs can be cheaply outsourced elsewhere?

Because if you believe in what Ian Gilbert calls The Great Educational Lie (do well at school and you’ll get a good job) then passing exams is fine. But if you believe that “to succeed in business you need to break the rules” then we have a responsibility to teach content in a way that also teaches skills, dispositions and competencies needed to make our children indispensible in an uncertain future.

As usual the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground. Both sides have a point and the best approach lies in making sure we are teaching students knowledge and skills and that they leave school with a fistful of qualifications as well as being prepared for a brave new world in which following instructions won’t count for much.

No one, or at least no one I’d take seriously, advocates content free lessons or claims that knowledge is not worth having. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham says that students don’t like school because teachers are always trying to make them think and that the human brain just isn’t that good at thinking. In fact it’s wired to help us avoid having to think: almost everything we do is a product of stuff we hold in long-term memory, which allows to literally act without thinking. If you accept this then it’s entirely reasonable that in order to perform any kind of skill efficiently (driving, writing essays, solving quadratic equations etc.) we need to know how to do it deep down in our souls. As an English teacher I rock at writing essays because I write so many of the damn things and have an expert knowledge of how to do it well. Knowledge and skills are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.

So how to square this circle? One idea is to use SOLO taxonomy to design learning experiences which focus on acquiring knowledge and the the skill of applying this knowledge in new and interesting ways.

As learning progresses it becomes more complex. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) is a way to classify learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students’ work in terms of how interesting it is rather than whether it’s right or wrong. To begin with we will have a few unconnected pieces of knowledge which we can apply to a task, but as our understanding grows we become able to relate this knowledge to the whole and then to see how this information could be used to connect with other seemingly unrelated ideas.

It’s daft to simply ask students to tell us what we’ve already told them. Much better if they tell us how they could apply what they’ve learnt. They should be able to do this if we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn and make sure teaching and assessment match these outcomes. Outcome statements need to use verbs (apply, explain, evaluate etc.) which describe the activities that students need to undertake in order to meet the intended outcome. In this system learning is constructed by what the students do, not what us teachers do. The SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into the intended learning outcomes and to create assessment criteria which are based not so much on what students know as on how skilled they are in applying that knowledge.

But hang on, is this SOLO stuff valid? Does it have any basis in research, or is it just another brand of snake oil? I’m determined to check my facts on this sort of stuff these days so was cheered to find this in Prof Hattie’s Education Bible, Visible Learning:

[There] are three types of understanding – surface, deep and constructed or conceptual understanding-[and they] are built on the Biggs and Collis SOLO model of teaching and learning and also in our understanding of assessment (Hattie & Purdie, 1998; Hattie and Brown, 2004)…It is the model used throughout this book

Confused? Here’s a handy introductory lesson, based on the work of the indefatigable Tait Coles, that can be successfully used with almost any group.

14 Responses to Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?

  1. @mrphorner says:

    I’m really excited about this. Maybe a little apprehensive also. I too would like to give a shout out to @totallywired77 (Tait Coles) along with your posts on SOLO his blog has gone a long way to developing my understanding of it from prestructural towards, well let’s say relational at the minute. I’m going to hold myself to account to engage with this and try it out.

  2. learningspy says:

    I know – I still feel I’m stumbling around ‘relational’ – Tait is definitely ‘extended abstract’ as is @DKMead. I know this is the way to go but am still finding my feet.

  3. Andrew Old says:

    Good grief.

    Some points.

    1) “… it boils down to what you think the point of education is” is the ultimate cop-out for bad teaching. It means that the teaching methods can never been shown to be ineffective, because their advocates will simply move the goal-posts. I blogged about this type of argument here:

    2) “… we have a responsibility to teach content in a way that also teaches skills, dispositions and competencies needed to make our children indispensible in an uncertain future”. This is another common argument for greater dumber down, that the uncertainty of the future somehow requires less well-defined forms of learning. However, while the future is uncertain it is very hard to establish that it is uncertain in relevant ways. There’s a strong argument for thinking that in a lot of ways the future is like the past. Even when it isn’t, it seems back-to-front, to suggest that the old are meant to prepare the young for a changed world. It is the young who are the change. We don’t inherit the future from previous generations, we inherit the past.

    3) Finally, if we are to learn from Dan Willingham, then one of the most important things we should learn is to doubt the transferability of skills. Why do I mention this? Because it’s the biggest stumbling block to the credibility of cross-disciplinary taxonomies. We may describe processes in different disciplines with the same words, but if they don’t actually represent the same, or similar skills, then it is unlikely that the taxonomy will be equally valid in different disciplines.

  4. Chris says:

    excelent post, but it has my head in tatters! A lot to get my head around. The thinking behind this taxonomy is so relevant when you look at the world our pupils will be facing in a few years. I’m always peased to find new ways to help pupils develop these life skills. I’m a music teacher in a high school, and for music to stay a vital part of the curriculum, I think approaches like this are essential. It relates well to some of Ken Robinson’s ideas in ‘out of our minds’ about creativity in education.

    • learningspy says:

      Chris, Andrew. What can I say? The fact that both of you have commented fulfils exactly my reasons for writing this post. Constructivists: you need to toughen up and approach SKR with a bit more rigour. DI exponents: yes we know what Hattie has to say, but never comes close to commenting on the effect sizes of empathy, happiness or the role of growth mindsets in education.

      Incidentally, in case you were wondering, you absolutely CAN teach empathy! I’ve been using Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed to teach it to a lad with Asberger’s and it’s working. For him acquiring this ‘skill’ is about reducing it the component knowledge. Will write in more detail another time.

      I’m also pretty sure you can teach happiness and absolutely know you can teach the growth mindset.

      However. I digress. To the doubters I say, give SOLO a go. You might be surprised.

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  6. Daisy says:

    Hmmm. I was trying to be open minded, but then I saw the sample lesson was about the X factor, and then about content of the child’s own choosing. You can’t just use any old content to teach skills – the type of content you teach matters! As Andrew says, skills are rooted in domain-specific knowledge. If you teach lessons like the one above, then pupils will end up very good at analysing the judges on the X-factor and whatever else they are interested in, and very bad at analysing, or even reading, any other types of content. And that includes lots of content that is very important for the 21st century.

    • learningspy says:

      That’s very interesting Daisy. I appreciate your attempts at open mindedness although I’m not clear what you were struggling to be open minded about.

      Let me start by making clear that I’m a big fan of knowledge. I’m not particularly interested in getting anybody to analyse the judges on X Factor. Clearly teaching isolated lessons on X Factor for no good reason is the act of an idiot. This is merely one of many possible examples about which student will have prior knowledge. How did you get the idea that I thought you could teach skills about any old thing or that children could choose whatever they want to learn about? I don’t.

      The point, which maybe I failed to explain clearly enough, is to demonstrate how levels of knowledge can be applied. As soon as this concept is grasped one can move to applying these levels to areas of one’s choosing. SOLO taxonomy then provides a means for allowing students to see how to move from multi structural (fairly easy to achieve) to relational (somewhat harder) and beyond. I can’t see anyway in which it could be argued that that this would make students “very bad at analysing, or even reading, other types of content.” On the contrary, it makes them significantly more aware of how they use what they know.

      Would you also argue that it would be counter productive to relate a Shakespeare text to situations with which students were familiar as a starting point to open up comparisons?

      Also, I seem to have been cast in the position of holding some sort of wrongheaded view about what’s important in the 21st century – or have I incorrectly inferred that?

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