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.