I read with some interest this week Andrew Old’s blog on the sloppy use of the word ‘skills’. His analysis is very much in the right direction: the term skills has been used far too loosely over the years and few are sufficiently specific about what they mean by it. Andrew Old identified three different meanings to the term ‘skills’:
(1) an ability to do something – this means so much that it means nothing as everything can be cast in terms of doing something.
(2) generic or transferable skills, such as ‘thinking skills’, ‘teamwork’ and ‘problem-solving’
(3) skills that are context-specific and acquired through practice
I am going to take (1) as uncontroversial and concentrate for the moment on (2). Andrew Old is of course right that this is the greater debate, not least because a number of attempts have been made in recent years to base curriculum, pedagogy and assessment around generic skills. Such an approach is incorrect, I think, though I would suggest that the ship of education was here overwhelmed by a wave of good intentions. When businesses and higher education organisations demanded that school-leavers be better at problem solving, teamwork and independent thought, it was easy, if misguided, to place these ideas at the heart of the education system. Some history teachers have been complaining about drives to move towards ‘genericism’ in schools for many years, not least because this has often undermined the status of the subject. In 2007 the editors (before my time) of Teaching History (£) noted with concern a shift away from a subject-based curriculum in some schools, particularly the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum. In 2010 James Woodcock (£), a Head of History, argued that work between different school subjects needed to be understood as ‘inter-disciplinary’ rather than ‘cross-curricular’. In the same edition of Teaching History, Andrew Wrenn (£), as a LA General Adviser, criticised programmes such as Opening Minds, PLTS and Learning to Learn for not rendering to Clio the things that are hers. History specialists such as these have been quite vocal in their opposition to an emphasis on generic skills undermining their subject discipline.
Andrew Old offered an alternative, third conception of ‘skills’ which involves relating them to practice within a particular context. A similar argument to this was advanced by Sharon Bailin et al in 1999 (free here) who challenged a simplistic view of ‘thinking skills’ and who instead offered an alternative model based on context-specific skills that require certain bodies of knowledge in order to be effected. The person who, to my mind, has taken this argument to its logical and sensible conclusion is Michael Young. His 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In is far more sophisticated and persuasive than anything that Hirsch has written. Young sets out clearly the contexts in which learning has to take place, namely the academic disciplines which are, in Rob Moore’s terms, ‘historically evolved rules of collective evaluation.’ By way of introduction, it is worth having a read of Young and Muller (free here) who contrast a ‘traditional’ and ‘generic’ approach to education before advocating a ‘third way’ that draws upon academic disciplines as the basis of an education.
So far, so good. Andrew Old is right. I would like to suggest, however, that we can use the same logic that he advanced in his blog so effectively to undermine the case for generic skills to do what few have done so far online, though many have done for centuries in print, which is to move beyond a sloppy use of the term ‘knowledge’. The fact that this word has been used so loosely, and that so few have commented on this, demonstrates the primacy that ‘skills’ have had in the discourse. In particular, those who advocate moving away from a skills-based curriculum have tended to place ‘knowledge’ on a pedestal without being sufficiently clear about what they mean about this term. It’s time to make knowledge more complicated.
Essentially, I think, the problem is that ‘knowledge’ is conflated with ‘content’ and I think an example is the best way to demonstrate what I mean by this. Let’s take Aristotle’s Politics, partly because I have two copies staring at me on my shelf, one a lovely old edition bought for me by a former pupil. As a historian, I am primarily interested in what Aristotle has to say about the nature of Greek politics in the fourth century B.C. A friend of mine who teaches ancient Greek, however, is not particularly interested in the history, but is far more interested in the structure of the language, the use of metaphor and so on. A philosopher, on the other hand, will be interested in the Politics for another set of reasons. In Cambridge you will find experts on Aristotle in the Faculties of History, Classics and Philosophy.
All of these disciplinary interests rely on grasping the ‘content’ of Aristotle’s Politics, and it is for this reason that I have no qualm about insisting that pupils get to grips with content: one must know the facts, the dates, the people and the ideas. My concern, however, is that this is not in itself a pedagogy. Pupils do not walk into a classroom, learn every fact there is to know about Aristotle’s Politics, and then decide whether they’re going to start thinking about it as a historian, philosopher or classicist. The discipline is where one begins. When pupils walk into a history lesson, they are there to learn history, and that means looking at Aristotle through the lens of a historian. I used to teach a scheme of work on Shakespeare in my history lessons, but the way in which we approached Shakespeare was very different to how he was approached in English or drama.
At its heart, this is an issue of questions. As a historian, I ask different questions of content to philosophers, and therefore I end up with a different form of knowledge. Content is essential, for without content there is no knowledge, but that content is structured through a discipline, and a discipline is where you begin, not where you end. Historians want to ask questions about cause, consequence, change and continuity; these concepts determine the questions we ask, and therefore the form of the knowledge we know. This is not to say that inter-disciplinary work cannot be undertaken, but it is much harder to do for it requires one to understand, at a fairly high level, how two different disciplines produce different forms of knowledge out of the same content.
This, then, is my plea. Andrew Old is absolutely right that people have been sloppy with the word ‘skills’ and this is indefensible. He is right, too, that we need to understand the context- and subject-specific nature of ‘skills’. We must, however, do the same with ‘knowledge’. One does not go to school to learn a list of facts; one goes to school to learn history, geography, physics, mathematics and classics (I wish). Pupils must learn lots and lots of content, but this is not a sufficiently complex description of what learning a subject means. I am completely behind those, like Michael Young, who advocate a knowledge-based curriculum, but we who support this need to be sure that we do not fall into the same trap as the skills-junkies by making knowledge too simple.