The Knowledge v Skills Debate

Hello and happy half term. This month’s blog post is going to be based around the knowledge v skills debate in education. In a nut shell it is as follows: a greater emphasis on building students’ body of knowledge verses a greater emphasis on equipping students with transferable skills. Those in the knowledge camp believe that the teaching of facts has been denigrated and consequently led to detrimental gaps in students’ knowledge. Those in the skills camp believe that it is much more worthwhile to focus on the teaching of transferable skills; the ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesise being the holy grail. In this blog post I am going to explain my position on this subject, using anecdotal evidence from my own teaching as well as sources including Daisy Christodoulou‘s ‘Seven Myths of Education’, Daniel Willingham‘s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and Joe Kirby‘s ‘Pragmatic Education‘┬áblog.

I became an English teacher around 18 months ago having changed from a career in the media. Many things surprised me when I moved into this world, one of them being the style in which I was expected to teach. Gone were the days of text books (that’s a different, though related, debate), teacher-led instruction and repetitive practice. In it’s place were the creation of lots of powerpoints, student-led learning and self and peer assessment. For example, the first unit I taught my year 8 class was ‘Private Peaceful’. I had assumed that the study of a novel would involve a significant portion of time ensuring they had a solid knowledge of World War 1 and the societal mores of the time, so that they could understand the plot and characters on a deeper level. But at Key Stage 3 English isn’t divided into language and literature, it’s all in one, so rather than this unit being purely literary, it was also designed to improve students’ literacy: their reading and writing skills. So during a writing week, for example, parts of the text would be read but the main focus would be on teaching them how to use certain pieces of punctuation, certain sentence structures and the conventions of descriptive writing in order for them to achieve their target levels in their writing assessment. With no text books, this meant designing activities, with a Private Peaceful theme, from scratch or using the slides in the scheme of work if they fitted your class’ ability. In a way it felt like they could have been studying any novel, the content wasn’t particularly important, what was important was whether they improved their writing/reading skills and levels. Interestingly, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that “teaching content is teaching reading.” In this video, he shows and explains how once a child has learnt to decode, they can decode anything. However, that doesn’t always mean they always understand what they’re reading – that comes from making sure they have a background knowledge to what they’re reading and by activating their prior knowledge. Willingham claims that teaching other subjects such as science, history, music etc is also teaching reading because the knowledge students gain will enhance their comprehension skills.

Private_Peaceful

The reason for this approach to the teaching of English is, in my opinion, to do with the pervasion of the idea that we must teach our children transferable skills. The idea of acquiring facts through rote learning and repetitive practice went out of fashion. In it’s place came the idea that children must discover new learning and the teacher should be playing a facilitating role in that learning, ie not doing too much instruction from the front. Indeed, Daisy Christodoulou’s research into Ofsted lesson reports (she studied 228) for her book ‘Seven Myths About Education’ found that of the lessons that are praised, very few involve the teacher teaching facts. In the lessons that are criticised, they are so for the teacher talking too much, imparting facts or students doing activities that involve factual recall. As Daisy states in her book: “I remember one teacher trainer telling me that if I was talking, the pupils were not learning.” Is it any wonder then that teaching has become massively focussed on children discovering new skills if that is what Ofsted are seeking?

Conversely, just because that’s what Ofsted seem to be looking for, despite Sir Michael Wilshaw stating the contrary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for students’ learning. This might sound counter-intuitive – how can the opposite of what Ofsted is looking for be best for the students? Well, that depends on how you believe children learn.

A useful analogy I find is to compare learning to write proficiently to learning to play tennis to a decent standard. No one can just pick up a racket and play tennis well; it takes time and practice. In fact, in order to be able to hit a good forehand every time you step onto the court, you have to hit hundreds and hundreds of forehands over and over again. It is only when your arm muscles develop an automatic memory of how to hit a forehand that you can do it without thinking. When Andy Murray is playing on Centre Court he is not thinking about how to hit a forehand, he’s using his brain to think about tactics. This links to the idea behind our memory, which is divided between long-term and working. Our working memory is easily overloaded, this is where we’re processing new knowledge. Overloading the working memory is fatal, we can only learn a finite amount of new things at once, a maximum of around seven. The long-term memory, however, is infinite and can be relied upon. This is where we keep our times tables, our knowledge of what a verb is, what an adjective is, key historical dates, capital cities, symbols of the periodic table etc. Just like Andy Murray needs to be able to serve well under pressure, we want our students to write well under pressure (in exams). It’s no good if under the stress of an exam, they forget all their capital letters. The way to do this is to make a change in their long-term memory so that using punctuation correctly becomes second-nature – then students can devote their working memory to the actual content of their answers, just like Murray devotes his brain power to his tactics rather than his technique. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ he claims that “nothing has been learnt if nothing has been changed in long-term memory.”

Andy Murray of Britain hits a forehand r

From my own experience, I have found it extremely frustrating that no matter how many times I give certain students feedback about their missing punctuation, or give them unpunctuated pieces of writing to punctuate or go over the rules of when to use a full stop, comma etc they still can’t use them in their own writing. Of course this isn’t every student, but it’s enough for it to be a concern, especially when they’re age 14+. How is it that this basic and fundamental aspect of English has not been mastered? How can they hope to produce a cogent piece of writing without the mastery of the full stop? It’s not just low ability students either. I did a placement during my training year at a very expensive boarding school and found myself inserting commas into an A* student’s essay when looking over it.

It is my belief that favouring skills over knowledge has been detrimental to the progress of students. What is the point of being able to write persuasively if you can’t use capitals correctly? I agree that using skills of analysis and evaluation is more advanced than factual recall, but surely certain facts need to be memorised and certain tasks drilled, in order to be able to access these higher-order skills effectively. You can’t analyse the character of Bill Sikes before understanding the society and world he lived in. You can’t write a soaring piece of rhetoric before being able to construct grammatically correct sentences. Moreover, you can’t master the fundamentals of the English language without constant repetition and practice, the type of thing Ofsted frown upon in the classroom.

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You may be thinking so far so good, but how do you teach students to commit facts to memory without making the lessons boring? How do you make learning fun? Are you expecting sixth formers to learn by rote? In response to this, I think that practice and repetition is necessary for the novice. The student who hasn’t grasped what comprises a sentence. The student who can’t do their 8 times table. The student who can’t read without stumbling on every other word. Unfortunately, this can be the case for students as old as 15. Learning facts doesn’t have to be boring either: it’s a teacher’s job to bring their subject to life and there are tonnes of fun things you can do with technology and props to make even the dullest content interesting. Now at sixth form, you wouldn’t be there unless you had a certain level of mastery. However, that’s not to say facts should be neglected. In the introduction to Daisy’s book, she cites the example of a history professor who asked his first-year history undergraduates five fairly basic questions about British history: 89% of them could not name a nineteenth-century British prime minister while 70% of them did not know where the Boer Wars took place. As Daisy puts it, “If that is what Russell Group undergraduates do not know, then what can we assume that the 40% of school-leavers who fail to get five A*-Cs at GCSE do know?”

As part of Daisy’s role at Ark as Head of Research and Development, she has been instrumental in designing a new mastery English curriculum for year 7 that is knowledge-led. I am an English teacher at one of the pilot schools so have been lucky enough to teach this curriculum. The course is split into 6 hours of English teaching: 3 hours of literature, 2 hours of grammar and one hour of reading for pleasure. The literature is challenging (we did Oliver Twist in the first term and are now studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and there is a big focus on context before moving onto skills such as textual analysis. The grammar units mean that grammar is taught explicitly and the lessons are teacher led. Students complete activities that involve rigorous practice as well as repetition to ensure they are mastering how to use the English language, and they get immediate feedback in class. The reading for pleasure lesson takes place in our library and aims to instil a love of reading in children so they don’t just associate reading with exams and assessments, but something they can get life-long enjoyment from.

So far I have found this new curriculum to be outstanding. The amount of time devoted to context in the literature lessons means the students are able to have a much fuller understanding of Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s writing. The explicit teaching of grammar means students are cementing their knowledge of how the English language works. The reading for pleasure lesson means we’ve been able to read childhood favourites of mine such as ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘The Hobbit’, two novels that definitely shaped my imagination as a child. By focussing on mastery at Key Stage 3, I hope that by Key Stage 4 the students will be in a position to write accurately under pressure, understand how context influences literature and possess a real love of reading. And that’s a minimum expectation. Using this foundation of knowledge and facts, I want the high ability students to be able to write thought-provoking and perceptive literary criticism essays, compose beautiful prose and get top grades.

I would like to end with a note on cultural capital. Children who come to my school are some of the most deprived in the country – that is no exaggeration. However, it’s not just financial deprivation that they face but cultural as well. Many students have grown up in houses without books, where knowledge and learning isn’t necessarily valued. This can result in some scary situations: students not knowing that Portsmouth is in Hampshire, students not knowing the capital of England, students not knowing the points on a compass, students not being able to tell the time. They are the extreme cases and tend to come from low ability students. However, if I think about our gifted and talented students, I wonder how many of them have seen a play on stage, how many have been to the West End, how many have been to art galleries, how many have seen breath-taking architecture? If we really want to bridge the gap between privileged and underprivileged students, we need to empower them with cultural capital as well as good grades. You can be sure that their middle class contemporaries are benefiting from exposure to such experiences, and it’s not just about impressing an admissions tutor with your knowledge of post-modernist theatre either. In a recent lecture on cultural literacy, Dr Catherine Alexander, former fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, talked about the importance of “knowing stuff” when reading Shakespeare. She said that we need to know the dates in which he was writing; we need to know about Queen Elizabeth I and King James I; we need to understand the role of an actor; we need to know the names of his plays and how theatres worked; we need to know that his company had 12-14 actors; we need to know that young men played women’s roles; we need to know about iambic pentameter; we need to know what a sonnet is. In essence, to be culturally literate, we need knowledge.

Please leave any comments you may have about the knowledge v skills debate, I’d love to hear your opinions.