Knowledge, skills and the ignored dichotomy

I have been following the debate online in recent weeks on the knowledge-skills dichotomy, particularly the post written by David Didau. Generally speaking, I am in agreement with David that the debate is worth having and that we should not collapse a dichotomy that provides up with a means by which we can talk about matters of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.


I do, however, think that the knowledge-skills debate, while worth having, is weak if conducted in isolation from another debate between the generic and the subject-specific. I have grafted this dichotomy onto the following graph.


As with all such graphs, this is a distortion of a complex array of views, but I would encourage you to think about the blogs you read and to think about where they sit on this graph. In the top-right the example that comes to mind is the Old SHP (Schools History Project) that was so popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and which placed the emphasis in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment on subject-specific skills, such as the analysis of original documents. Over here too might (possibly) sit those who want to see lots of experiments in science. The Opening Minds curriculum, Learning to Learn, PLTS and alike all sit happily in the bottom-right with an emphasis on generic competences such as critical thinking, resilience, creativity and so on.

Over in the bottom left I would put anyone who uses terms such as ‘knowledge’, ‘information’ and ‘facts’ interchangeably. Perhaps, more philosophically, this quadrant might be characterised as those who define knowledge, at least for schooling purposes, as ‘true belief’ rather than ‘justified true belief’ (please spare me your Gettier problems for now!) E.D. Hirsch is difficult to place: in Cultural Literacy he probably belongs here in that he gives no account of how the facts he lists are structured to form knowledge. Elsewhere, however, he refers to discipline-specific knowledge, which would move him towards the top left. Sitting squarely in the top-left are philosophers of education such as R.S. Peters and Paul Hirst, who placed a strong emphasis on forms of knowledge, and sociologists such as Michael Young, who referred to disciplines as constituting ‘powerful knowledge’. I would place myself squarely in that box too.

I should point out that placing myself in the top-left does not mean I have no interest in the other quadrants. By placing myself there, however, I commit myself to domain-specific knowledge as the primary organising principle in thinking about the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. I would characterise existence in that quadrant as concerning oneself primarily with the question ‘is it good history?’ or whatever subject one chooses to teach. It is a position that frustrates senior managers and policy-makers who do not like difference and who want tidy models (e.g.of assessment) that can be deployed regardless of subject domain.

The debate, online and off, often confuses these squares. The top-right can be easily mistaken for the bottom-right; although I am in agreement with those history teachers who, over the last twenty years, have strongly criticised the skills-based model of the Old SHP, I nevertheless find the top-right more palatable than the bottom-right. Offline, I have found that, because I want to emphasise the top-left over the bottom-left, people think I am actually arguing for the top-right: this is remarkably frustrating!

So back to the world of Twitter and blogs. The debate I would like to see is actually between the top half of the graph and the bottom. The knowledge-skills dichotomy has been debated at length, and indeed should continue to be debated, but I would argue that it often ends in stalemate because insufficient attention is paid to the generic-specific dichotomy: either the dichotomy is collapsed or, worse, the whole thing is understood entirely in terms of bottom-left versus bottom-right. If you want to have the knowledge-skills debate and have hit a dead end, then you might just find a foray into the generic-specific debate helps move your argument on.

5 Comments on Knowledge, skills and the ignored dichotomy

  1. Interesting. Since the beginning of schooling there has been a belief in the virtues that can be instilled in a pupil through their attending the institution. The experience of the ‘whole’ which is, maybe, more than the sum of its parts? The Institution of the school brings together behaviours and deems them acceptable or unacceptable, it rewards certain virtues over others, bringing all together in the idea of ‘ethos’. Within that each academic/subject area is ploughing its own furrow either in the same direction or, sometimes, at a tangent to the overall ethos. Where the subjects come together (which is probably only through the experience of the pupil), there are the unwritten generic ‘knowledges’ and skills. I suppose Institutions try to make this their business, but when this is taken over by the inarticulate needs of commerce or by those who believe society should be ‘more creative’ this whole ethos crumbles because, really, these things work from the ground up, not the other way round? i.e. in the sum of the parts.

    Hm… Don’t know if I’ve expressed it well… I’ll think on’t

    • This is an interesting observation. Certainly many schools look beyond the classroom teaching to something more akin to ethos or character building, for want of a better word. So while a subject teacher might very legitimately place themselves in the top left quadrant where would a school or perhaps a pastoral system place itself?

      • Michael Fordham // 18 December 2013 at 18:37 //

        That’s a good point and I would agree that, by necessity, schools think outside the top-left quadrant, and indeed might validly take an interest in all four. My point here is that the top-left should drive curriculum, pedagogy and assessment – other things (such as learning to learn, developing social skills, participating in a wider school ethos) can emerge from that. I would expect a strong curriculum deputy head to be asking what meaningful links can be drawn between subjects, without losing their distinctiveness – I think the distinction between inter-disciplinary and cross-curricular is helpful here. I’m obviously in favour of the former!

    • ‘from the ground up’, yes. I find that a useful way to think about it. If senior managers don’t attend to the ‘parts’, If they don’t make it their business to strive to understand the distinctive knowledge structures of the ‘parts’, they cannot make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. All too often ‘cross-curricularity’ or school-wide initiatives proceed from some extraneous concern – whether literacy, engagement, character, team-building, information skills or whatever. However vital these may be, if there is little/no understanding of the distinctive ways in which disciplines already (or even potentially) attend to these, as a journeys into certain types of knowledge and as a study of structure, form and grounds of that knowledge, then the cross-curricular initiative can be at best redundant, at worst damaging.

      I have seen this again and again where some initiative to foster ‘information skills’ or cross-curricular literacy actually undermines all that a history department has done to teach (say) the distinction between evidence and information or the shape of historical argument. Worse, where time is taken away from subjects to focus on the cross-curricular entity – time that was badly needed to help pupils gain basic fluency in knowledge sufficient to (eg) recognise abstract vocabulary or frame an argument within common terms of reference – pupils lose out in acquiring the building blocks of knowledge, lose out in secure understanding of the distinctive goals and truth claims of each subject and lose out in literacy and information skills to boot.

      Contrast that with a senior manager starting out by thinking hard about what is going on in (say) history, science and art in terms of knowledge, language and evidence. Imagine said SMT supporting these departments in gaining yet more subject knowledge and subject-specific CPD to do it even better. Said SMT then makes it their business to analyse the interesting convergence and necessary divergence of these subjects, and to create structures and professional culture which allow history, science and art teachers to have such high-level, informed, interdisciplinary conversations. Not only does this avoid detracting from the curriculum time and subject expertise needed to help all pupils become fluent in each knowledge domain, it also means that by Year 9 there is some hope of pupils themselves becoming fascinated by how science, history and music differ in their quests for truth, some hope of pupils themselves making useful knowledge/ conceptual connections between the subjects and some hope of ensuring that the distinctive ways of reading/writing/communicating in each subject (which are bound up with distinctive ways of knowing) are both embedded and directly drawn to pupils’ attention.

      Give me inter-disciplinarity over cross-curricularity every time.

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