Recent government rhetoric would seem to suggest that skills are back on the agenda. For some years now, the emphasis in the education debate has been on knowledge, and, at least in some quarters, we have made significant progress in moving beyond tired stale arguments (e.g. knowledge = lists of disconnected facts). Those of us who have advanced a renewed interest in knowledge have however been very hesitant about using the word ‘skill’, not least because the word has been used in an earlier era to play down the importance of knowledge. I think it is high time, however, that we gave the same attention to the word ‘skill’. To do this, however, I think we need to spend some time establishing exactly what might be meant when we talk about ‘skill’, and how it stands in relation to knowledge. This post is my first proper foray into this territory.
Before I continue, it is vital first to be clear about what I mean by ‘knowledge’. Philosophers have done a great deal of ground work on setting out what knowledge is and what forms it takes. Putting aside for the moment some of the more fundamental questions (e.g. is knowledge a belief that is true and justified), one of the more popular ideas has been to distinguish between knowing that something is the case (know-that) and knowing how to do something (know-how). There is a fairly extensive debate as to whether these are two distinct branches of knowledge, although for the purposes of what I write here this question is ultimately not significant. It suffices that we can talk of know-that and know-how. Keep those two forms of knowledge at the forefront of your mind in what follows.
I move now to thinking about skill. I have played around with several possible ways in to this matter, and I have decided that the best approach to explain my thinking is with the following statement:
Skills cannot be taught.
The rest of this post explains this idea, and, through it, what I think is an initial step needed to clear muddied waters.
Let’s take for the moment the skill of driving a car. We certainly talk of skilled drivers, and in everyday parlance we say
“I am going to teach you to drive a car”.
In practice, however, what this means is
“I am going to teach you the knowledge you need to drive a car”.
Why is this? Well, let’s imagine that we are teaching someone to drive a car. As the teacher, we would begin by explaining all sorts of things that you need to know, which might include:
- this is the clutch pedal
- this is the brake pedal
- this is the accelerator pedal
- start by pushing down the clutch
- this is the gear stick
- before you can move you have to put the car in gear
- while the clutch is down, put the car in first gear
- you put the car in gear by moving this gear stick left and up
- next you have to press gently on the accelerator pedal
- now you must gently lift your foot on the clutch pedal
- when you feel the car begin to move, you must release the handbrake
- this is the handbrake
and so on. This is quite a considerable body of knowledge that you have to teach. All of these are either know-that statements (“this is the clutch pedal”) or know-how statements (“next you have to press gently on the accelerator”).
Now in theory all of this knowledge could be taught before even sitting in the car. You could in principle learn how to drive a car without even entering a car. Knowing-how to do it is not the same as having the ability to do it: that ability comes with practice.
And what happens when you practise? Well, chances are you will get it wrong. That is why we go out with a driving instructor. But let’s think through what happens next, once the novice driver has got it wrong. What is it the instructor does to help?
First of all, the instructor tries to identify what part of the performance was poor. Perhaps the novice brought the clutch up too quickly and the car stalled. The instructor now has to correct that error. And how does she do this? The answer is through more knowledge, or re-stressing the knowledge that has already been taught.
- “Your foot came up too quickly. Remember, you have to raise your foot slowly. Do that again and raise your foot more slowly.”
Here, the instructor re-emphasises the knowledge that has been taught. This then continues, possibly for many hours, until the novice has reached a point where he can drive – i.e. to the point where he has mastered the skill of driving.
What is crucial here, however, is that the teacher gets the driver to this point by constantly feeding in more knowledge, whether that be know-that (“if you raise your foot too quickly the car will stall”) or know-how (“you must raise your foot more slowly in order to avoid stalling”).
In this way, skill cannot be taught: it can be only learnt, and it is learnt via the teaching of knowledge. This is why it makes absolutely no sense to say things like “a balance of knowledge and skills”. It would be like saying “a balance of ingredients and cake”.
I would suggest that, if we want to start talking about skills in a serious way, then we should first get some clarity about the intricate relationship between knowledge and skill. Until we do, we are destined to keep repeating the old platitudes.