It’s time to make knowledge more complicated

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.

4 Comments on It’s time to make knowledge more complicated

  1. Excellent post which sums up my feelings about all of this and relates to a curate’s egg view of the so called dichotomy about which I have blogged.

  2. All very interesting!

    Am I being simplistic in following Bloom in viewing factual knowledge (knowing *that*) as a prerequisite to higher levels of understanding (making associations and contexualisation) and active skills of evaluation and creativity (knowing *how*)? And if the real objective is to teach this higher-order understanding and these skills, then it helps if we prime the pump with a broadly pre-determined body of knowledge (a) to ensure that the factual knowledge is selected in such a way that it facilitates understanding (e.g. aiding by pattern-recognition and cross referencing); and (b) to leverage the network effect by ensuring that everyone is starting out for the summit from the same knowledge base-camp.

    I do not entirely agree with you in dismissing generic skills. Yes, this ends up in a thin gruel of an education if we try to teach the generic skills directly. But it is ultimately the generic skills that are the most valuable: why else do city firms employ physics graduates and law firms employ classicists? These are the elephant that we know that we are seeing when we meet a well-educated person.

    Commercial talent management systems take a mechanical view of competency: x has attended the health and safety briefing and has been observed drilling a hole is a piece of sheet metal and is therefore safe to be sent to the machine tool room. Surely we should be trying to do something more than that in education?

    It seems to me that when we manage to apply analytics to education, we will be able infer these important but somewhat fuzzy generic skills from the more particular, concrete subject-specific skills. It is not that they are not important – it is that we should not be attempting to teach them directly. Which is the same as saying that at a lower, more subject-specific level, abstract understanding needs to be taught not purely in abstract terms, but by applying that understanding to a wide variety of concrete contexts. You achieve a real understanding of this abstract understanding by practicing the application of that understanding in *different* contexts, not the same context as your point 3 implies.

    Nor do I think there is a qualitative difference between 2 and 3. It is a continuum. “Being good at History” or “Being good at writing essays” are also some way along the scale to being generic, transferable skills.


    • mfordham // 25 July 2013 at 10:00 // Reply


      Many thanks for your thought-provoking comments. On generic skills, I do not suggest that they should be dismissed, but rather, as you say, that they should not be the basis of a model of curriculum, pedagogy or assessment. I have never worked in finance or law so I cannot comment on what it is that they are looking for, though I would guess that even there ‘skills’ are very context specific and that one has to do a great deal of learning in one’s first year or two in the job. My very nascent thoughts on this is that such companies are best placed to train their employees in the precise skills they need for the job.

      Underpinning all of this, however, is probably a disagreement about the purpose of an education, or, more precisely, what it means to be an ‘educated’ person. I sat through a conference symposium in Astana a few weeks ago where I listened to various people argue that the job of schools is to meet economic demand and I was grateful that the panel had a philosopher as one of its members who challenged this interpretation of what the role of a school is. To my mind the purpose of a schooling is to give people the knowledge (broadly defined) they need to make sense of the world in which they live in all its physical, social and temporal glory. The academic disciplines are (stealing the language of the social realists here) the best available tools we have for this.

      Finally on knowledge – my problem with something like Blooms is that I think it simplifies what it means to learn a subject. Yes, learning factual knowledge can come at an early stage, but it can come later too. I am currently reading Christopher Clark’s new book on the causes of the First World War and I am learning lots of new pieces of factual knowledge, but those pieces fit into a complex schema I already have in my head about the events of that period. So I have trouble seeing knowledge as a base camp and understanding as a summit: I cannot see, in my own learning, how those two things can be seen as distinct. I understood something about the First World War as I learnt my first nuggets of information about it, and that interplay continues to the present.

      Just some thoughts…


      • Hi Michael, Thanks for the reply. I’m off on holiday tomorrow morning so I fear the conversation will be a little truncated.

        Last point first: yes, I take your point and I did not mean to suggest that you should do knowledge in term 1 and move on to understanding in term 2 etc. And I also agree that information becomes more meaningful as you have an existing framework into which it fits. So by saying that knowledge comes first, I meant to imply a very iterative process. I was a history teacher too, and towards the end of my time increasingly took to setting old fashioned knowledge tests before getting people to write more complex essays as without the knowledge, the essay is a waste of time both to read and to write. So I guess I meant “prior” in a logical rather than a temporal sense.

        On the aims of education, I do not think you should dismiss employability, which is mighty useful to the prospective employee as much as the employer, while being able to make sense of the world might be a little ambitious as a goal! Not that we shouldn’t try, of course. I think what I am saying here is that these aims are not incompatible – and it is perfectly permissible to have several of them. If you asked students what their priorities were, I think that job prospects would rank pretty high. Do we, as teachers, have the right to tell them that they shouldn’t?

        Working backwards to your para 1 – I am sure that law firms spend a lot of time educating their new graduate recruits – but it is still significant, surely, that they choose to recruit graduates to enter these training programmes and not shelf-stackers. They must have learnt something that is useful, even though it was not directly relevant to the tasks they need to complete in their new job. The astronauts on the Apollo programme were nearly all fighter pilots: the skills and attitudes that they learnt in Korea ended up being highly applicable to a job description that, at the time they learnt those skills, had not yet been invented. And as our world moves faster and faster, I suspect that this sort of transferable skill becomes increasingly important.

        BTW I come across this problem in respect of data formats for so-called competency representation, if that means anything to you. There is work on these data standards going on in ISO/IEC and European CEN. My attempt to sort out the terminology has been to draft a paper which is at The question of transferable vs concrete competencies comes into it.

        My late-night two cents. Best, Crispin.

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