What do we mean by ‘skills’?

Any definition of skills depends on knowledge. Joe Kirby has written persuasively about skills and knowledge forming a double helix – inseparably intertwined and mutually interdependent. This is definitely a more helpful way to think, but it might be even better to abandon the term ‘skills’ altogether.

Is riding a bike a skill? Well, if we mean is it a set of procedures, which we can master to the point that we’re able to cycle without having to think about it then, yes it is. Is essay writing a skill? Well, it’s not the same sort of thing as riding a bike, but yes, it’s another set of procedures, which can be learned and practised. What about creativity? Is that a skill? Are there a series of steps, which, if you learn, you will become creative?

In general, skills are more usefully thought of as a category of knowledge. The type of knowledge that makes up how to ride a bike is usually tacit. If you had to explain to someone else how to ride a bike, you might struggle to articulate what exactly you meant. You might say something like, you sit on the saddle, hold the handlebars, balance and then pedal. But would this be useful? We usually learn to ride a bike by having a go. No one can really tell us how to balance; it just ‘feels right’. Because we’re not sure how exactly we go about riding a bike, swimming, or tying our shoelaces we tend not to think of them as knowledge, but they are; quite literally they are things we know how to do. All these things are made up of procedures that we’ve experienced, practised and mastered. Once we’ve learned them, they operate in the background, beneath our awareness.

Learning to read is a bit like this. Most people have how little idea how they’re able to read, they just do it. Psycholinguists have gotten pretty good at explaining how the procedures for learning to read work, but explaining them to children doesn’t tend to help much. The process of automatising phoneme/grapheme relationships and other word recognition skills is a set of procedures that we commit to memory. With practice they become so well embedded in long-term memory that we can’t switch them off – when you see text in a language we can read we decode it automatically.

Essay writing is different. It tends not to be tacit (although it can be) but it’s still procedural knowledge – know how – that we can apply whenever we have an essay to write. The problem is that the generic knowledge of how to write an essay doesn’t necessary mean we’ll be able to write a good essay. We also have to know something about whatever it is we’re writing about. Many students have learned how to write an essay, but still manage to write things like this:

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This is a student who has learned the form and structure of essay writing, but is still only capable of producing something empty and worthless. (I call this ‘cargo cult writing‘.) Knowledge of how to write an essay is not enough – you also need to know about what you’re writing about. Thankfully, all of this knowledge can be taught and students can, with practice, become better at essay writing.

But just because they’ve mastered writing English essays does not mean that they’ll be equally good at writing about history or economics. Not only does essay writing in these subjects require different content knowledge, it also requires knowledge of the different forms essays are required to take. The problem with viewing essay writing as a skill is that it encourages us to think that it can be taught as a generic set of procedures, which then transfer to every other context.

What about creativity? Can we provide a set of procedures, which, if followed, will reliably result in creativity? Probably not. We can certainly support the creative impulse and we can provide constraints that force people to be creative in order to overcome the constraint, but most people want creativity to mean more than this.

So, maybe creativity is more like tacit knowledge? Maybe it’s something we need to give students experience of, like riding a bike? Well, we can certainly do that, but that still won’t make you creative. In order to create new ways of thinking or doing you need to be very knowledgeable about the old ways of thinking or doing.

A lot of creativity might seem fairly banal. In essence it’s imagining something you’ve seen before and altering to fit a new circumstance. It takes creativity to look through the kitchen cupboards and rustle up a delicious meal. It takes creativity to plant a garden beautifully with limited resources, or to decide to wear those shoes with that dress.  All these examples require a solid foundation of knowledge. But again, most people aren’t content with such everyday creativity.

All the great minds throughout history that we celebrate as creative were already experts before they saw a new way of thinking or doing. Consider Newton sitting under the apocryphal apple tree, waiting for inspiration to fall. He wasn’t just ‘being creative’ when he formulated his theory of gravity, he was seeing links and connections between the vast store of things he knew about. Indeed, it’s speculated that Newton had probably read everything there was to read about science that had been written up to that point. It’s much easy to arrive at a new way of thinking or seeing when you know a tremendous amount already.

Wonderful scientist as he was, Newton is not noted for his creativity as a playwright. He’s rarely discussed as a great politician, philosopher or composer. This is because creativity does not transfer between domains. Because creativity depends on knowledge, in order to be creative in more than one field, you need to be an expert in more than one field. These days, who’s got time? Few of us will ever be creative in more than one domain, unless those domains are very closely related.

To sum up, there’s no doubt that there are different types of knowledge. Propositional – or explicit – knowledge is just one form. Procedural knowledge – or know how – is another. Knowledge can either be explicit or tacit, but it always resides in long-term memory as memorised information knitted together into complex schemas. Some knowledge operates in the background beyond our awareness and without the need for our attention; other knowledge requires conscious thought to be brought to bear on the world around us.

Some people want to argue that because essay writing is a skill, and because you can teach essay writing you can therefore teach all skills. This sort of syllogism displays an alarming lack of critical thinking. It might help if instead of speaking about ‘skills’ we talked about expertise. That way we might find it easier to see that all skill comes from learning information and practising how to use it.

21 Responses to What do we mean by ‘skills’?

  1. How curious. Your example of ‘skills’ is something almost universal – doing essay-writing. Your example of ‘creativity’ is the extreme, isolated one-off example of Isaac Newton doing high order abstract thinking. Do you have an example of ‘creativity’ that would be equivalent to your almost universal example of essay-writing as evidence for why ‘knowledge’ is required in order to do it?

    • David Didau says:

      Oh, yes. Looking in the fridge and working out what to cook is a workaday example of creativity. And one equally dependent on knowledge 🙂

      • Constructive feedback is always appreciated.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m not sure what you mean by this Michael. It comes across as snarky although I’m sure this can’t have been your intent.

          • 1. You wrote an article about knowledge, essay writing and creativity.
            2. I made the point that I thought there was an imbalance between essay writing and your example of creativity ie Isaac Newton.
            3. I asked you if you could come up with another example that would match the essay writing in terms of an equivalent universality.
            4. You responded by being sarcastic about ‘looking in the fridge’ implying perhaps that that would be my ‘workaday example of creativity’. This wasn’t an answer to my request. Of course you don’t have to give an answer to anyone’s request, but if you answer sarcastically, don’t be surprised if someone asks you to be constructive?
            5. Yes, I did ask you to be constructive but as I couldn’t think of any way of doing that, I noticed right there above the empty reply box was a phrasing I could borrow.
            6. As I say, you haven’t proved any point at all with your example of ‘creativity’ because the example of you’ve used is the work of one of the most extraordinary people the human race has ever produced.
            7. If you can’t think of an equivalent of essay writing, how about if a pottery teacher (or any teacher teaching pottery – as happened when I was primary school, aged about 9 or 10) who got us all to make ‘thumb pots’ and ‘coil pots’? Can you apply your theory of knowledge to a situation like that?
            8. This last is an open-ended question, and I genuinely expect you to reply by telling us about how knowledge will fit such a situation – or another one of your choosing.
            9. Hope this clarifies matters.
            10. I’ve no idea why you went off on one about fridges.

          • David Didau says:

            In answer to 4, I really wasn’t being sarcastic. I think that’s an excellent example of everyday creativity on a par with bike riding.

          • David Didau says:

            Also, I liked your question so much I rewrote the creativity section of the blog in light of it. Maybe some of your other questions will be answered by rereading it.

          • David Didau says:

            And pottery re your potter example it seems to me that making pots is only possible if you know something about how to do it. And the more you know, the better the pot your likely to produce.

          • Mike says:

            You two! Again! Honestly!

  2. Claire MacLean says:

    There are plenty of elements of essay writing that are transferable, though, aren’t there? The need to introduce and conclude, the need for an argument, comparing and contrasting, appropriate use of technical terminology/jargon, etc. I certainly am finding the skills I developed for a PhD in historical linguistics useful for my MEd.
    However, I wouldn’t advocate generic “essay writing” training, no – it’s dull without context and yes, there are elements within the skill which are more specific to the “cultures” (for want of a better word) of different disciplines. Is skill not the appropriate word, then? Are there elements which are generic which we can highlight and mutually reinforce as teachers, without requiring a special lesson?

    I’m not sure I’ve worded that well. As I said, I’m not advocating individual skills training, but to throw out the generic baby with the bathwater seems a missed opportunity to reinforce and offer opportunities for practice.

    • David Didau says:

      Are there plenty of generic essay writing elements? Do all essay follow an argument? Do they all compare or contrast? Are introductions and conclusions the same for essays in different disciplines? They certainly don’t all use jargon!

      *Of course*a thorough knowledge of how to communicate in academic English is useful in every academic context but I don’t think this is at all the same as a generic essay writing skill.

      • Hi David
        I posted a reply which apologised unreservedly for misreading your post about ‘fridges’. It seems to have disappeared.

        I also asked if you thought there was any value in making a distinction between, e.g. the kind of knowledge taught to do algebra and the kind of knowledge taught in order to make a ‘thumb pot’…

        • David Didau says:

          Thank you for the apology – much appreciated. Yes, as I’ve explained I think there is a difference between procedural and propositional knowledge – procedural knowledge tends to be tacit (although not always) and operate in the background – often beyond our conscious awareness. Propositional knowledge tends to be more explicit – that is, explainable – and we are more aware both of having learned it and of deploying it in working memory. But that said, the knowledge of an algebraic fact and the knowledge of how to make a pot are more similar than they are different – both are information, collected as schemas and stored in long-term memory.

  3. Claire MacLean says:

    I would say so – what essay wouldn’t at least try to constuct an argument? I suppose I am thinking of the humanities primarily. And, no, introductions and conclusions aren’t the same, but they are necessary, whatever form they take.

    I wasn’t actually trying to construct a description of essay writing as a skill, rather to quickly set out a few “sub skills” if you like, which might be more generic. And comparing and contrasting is an analytical technique which you’ll find in many disciplines. But, my point is not to directly say, no, you’re wrong, essay writing is transferrable, as I don’t believe that, and largely agree with the general thrust of what you say. But I do think that it is worth observlng the commonalities (which will be at a pretty basic level, I think), so that they can be reinforced.

    I’m interested that you don’t think all disciplines use jargon; I’m wondering if we’re are understanding jargon differently, as I can’t think of a discipline that hasn’t developed its own.

  4. Claire MacLean says:

    I suppose, also, that I would avoid using “all” wherever possible!

  5. […] Skills driven standards can’t go out of fashion fast enough, in my opinion. Content knowledge is power. The power to think, to create, to apply, to evaluate, to understand, and the power to acquire more knowledge within a particular discipline. [See David Didau, for example, on the impossibility of separating skills from knowledge.] […]

  6. […] goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on […]

  7. […] as inseparably intertwined and mutually interdependent. It might be better, as I argued here, to abandon the term ‘skills’ altogether and replace it with the more neutral and useful term […]

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