Skills cannot be taught. Discuss.

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.

18 Comments on Skills cannot be taught. Discuss.

  1. Tom Burkard // 10 October 2017 at 19:13 // Reply

    I’m definitely with you in the knowledge v. skills debate, especially as it applies to the humanities. Teaching kids ‘how to think’ is all too often a matter of teaching them what to think. In History, it’s pretty simple: you present the pupil with an original document or two about a subject of which they are almost totally ignorant, and then ask them a loaded question.

    However, I don’t think we should dismiss skills altogether. When we teach children to decode, we first need to teach them what a phoneme is and how they blend together to form words. This is not intuitive, and some children find it difficult. In order to spell, they have to learn how to break words down into their constituent phonemes. Although this is normally accomplished concurrently with teaching them grapheme-phoneme correspondences (clearly knowledge), but the former are clearly skills in that once they are learned, they can be applied to new words. This is why synthetic phonics is vastly superior to look-and-say.

    • Michael Fordham // 10 October 2017 at 20:09 // Reply

      I think we pretty much agree here – I would just say that the skill of ‘decoding’ is taught by teaching knowledge of phonics.

  2. chrismwparsons // 11 October 2017 at 05:44 // Reply

    You can silently demonstrate how to produce a joined handwriting style, and when watching someone swing a tennis racket, it can automatically activate ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains which allow use to have a good attempt at replicating that movement. I guess you are restricting your focus to skills which contain components which can’t simply be demonstrated in silence. We can learn a fair amount about driving from carefully watching a driver – even deducing the procedures that they follow. Having said that, I guess a lot of these observations would get turned-into formal – sub vocalised – knowledge in our heads, and some parts simply benefit from being explained in language.

    • chrismwparsons // 11 October 2017 at 05:52 // Reply

      Having said all that, I guess perhaps the key question for me is this: We can distinguish between what a teacher can do in either demonstrating or explaining the knowledge required to do a skill, and the tacit knowledge which the learner acquires through actually having a go at the procedure. However, where does this leave ‘knowledge-rich’/ ‘knowledge-based’ teaching? It implies that all education systems have always been about knowledge, unless we once again attempt to redefine exactly what we mean by knowledge.

      • Michael Fordham // 12 October 2017 at 17:20 //

        I think I agree with all your points here. I’ve just written a follow up post ( which includes an addendum on the point you make about observing skilled performance and learning from that. My emphasis here has always been on what it might mean to teach skill, and, in saying skill can’t be taught, I’m saying it can’t be taught *directly*, because the very process of teaching requires that the teacher finds ways to communicate *about* the skill, which means working in the currency of knowledge.

  3. I think this discussion misses the point. Yes, skills and knowledge are both learned. However, a teacher is not necessary for learning either skills or knowledge. Therefore, you are in error to think that outside your example a skill must be learned “via the teaching of knowledge.” (And teaching knowledge matters little if the skill itself isn’t practiced. So, while knowledge matters, doing is just as important as, if not more important than, knowledge acquisition.) What matters more than whether we should teach skills or knowledge is the fact that neither can be taught without a willing learner. What matters more than this debate is a discussion about motivation and if there exist any skills or knowledge that all students must have forced upon them.

    You do make a nice case, however, for students constantly producing real work while being coached on the side, which is much better than gaining a store of knowledge that does little to help you develop skills with which you can produce something real. I’d much rather if I had spent time learning to frame a house than understanding the differences between the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. One branch of knowledge leads to skill development. One necessarily does not, and I think that is the essential argument that people are having with regard to the knowledge/skills debate.

    • Michael Fordham // 12 October 2017 at 17:22 // Reply

      More points here than I think I can respond to in a comment – I have incorporated part of my response into the follow-up post here: My emphasis is not on the learning of skills, but on what it means to teach. My argument (see follow-up post) is that a teacher who wishes her pupil to develop a particular skill must communicate about that skill with the pupil, and that this is done through the medium of knowledge *about* the skilled performance. Not sure if that provides any further clarity or not!

  4. These pairs of statements are distinct from each other. Which ones are easier to fully extricate from each other? Does it matter more whether we can make these distinctions, or whether we know these distinctions exist and are willing to think about them?
    We need to understand what we think we are doing, what we are actually doing, and what our own and the system we uphold’s intentions are when we stand in front of a class:

    I’m teaching him to drive. / I’m teaching him how to drive.
    I’m teaching them to read. / I’m teaching them how to read.
    I’m teaching them to think. / I’m teaching them how to think.
    I’m teaching them to learn. / I’m teaching them how to learn.
    I’m teaching them to gain knowledge. / I’m teaching them how to gain knowledge.
    I’m teaching them to pass exams. / I’m teaching them how to pass exams.

  5. I find your post very helpful and largely agree that skills tend to be learnt and honed through practice. This can be more effective when done alongside a teacher or coach passing on useful knowledge. I am slightly hazy, using your analogy, when a driving instructor in a dual control car expertly controls the clutch on a hill start to allow the driver to get a feel for this. It is likely the driver then finds it much easier to replicate at the next junction. Maybe this is just a form of tactile ‘know-how’?

    I believe any debate over the balance between knowledge and skills is, in reality, one between what you describe as know-that and know-how. Can they be separated? I guess you can teach lots of know-that without know-how but I’m not convinced you can teach much know-how without a decent helping of know-that!

    For me the big question is around the optimal balance between teaching know-that verses know-how? We are in an environment where our knowledge base is expanding, specialisms are becoming ever more niche, and our ability to access factual information outside of our minds is becoming ever more efficient. As teachers we have finite contact time with students and we want to make best use of it. Do we teach a reduced body of ‘know-that’ knowledge alongside a beefed-up ‘know-how’ module, for example on how to be an effective learner and critical thinker? Put another way, assuming there isn’t time to do both, do I support my students to learn a large body of factual knowledge (some of which might ‘stick’ long term) or do I teach them the skills to find out where to track down and critically evaluate this information from suitable sources?

    I feel there’s still a debate to be had, especially given the rapid developments in areas like metacognition over recent years. It’s fairly clear students need a broad knowledge base on which to build understanding but it’s depth, for me, is uncertain in a context where valuable time could be invested into improving research, learning and thinking skills.

  6. Skills are automatized knowledge.
    You need the knowledge of how to drive the car. When you can use this knowledge automatically without thinking too much about it you are a skillful driver.

    Knowledge always proceeds skills.
    Skills develop from practicing applying or using your knowledge.

  7. The problem with saying that students learn knowledge not skills and that skills can only be learnt by the students putting that knowledge into practice and hence automatising that declarative knowledge, as Rob points out above, is that students don’t and in 99% of cases won’t apply that knowledge to develop those skills without a teacher. It is that factor that leads people with some say in the matter to join classes and pay teachers – not to gain access to the knowledge, which is of course easily available now online as well as in countless textbooks.

    I am paying a lot of money per hour for a Spanish tutor for my child – she could easily read the vocab list in the specification found for free online, look up grammar for free etc. There are numerous listening and reading resources available for free. Google translate will give her some indication if her writing is any good and there are free apps that will tell her if her pronunciation is any good. But will she use them? Let alone use them in a balanced and sufficient way to develop the required skills?

    She thinks not. Which is why I am paying. Teachers ensure that students learn the skills. This is called teaching. Teaching is not about pouring a magic potion called ‘skills’ into someone’s head, or even a list of magic facts called ‘knowledge’. It is about overseeing the process of learning, through structure, feedback, encouragement etc. Yes, you learn by doing. But for all except a few very experienced and self-motivated learners, it takes a teacher to ensure that you do actually ‘do’, and ‘do’ the right stuff, at the right time and in the right quantities.

    • Michael Fordham // 12 October 2017 at 17:28 // Reply

      I think we probably agree here more than we differ. If we take speaking a language to be a ‘skill’ (which is a whole other matter that’s probably not worth going into here!) then my question would be, what is your child’s tutor doing to shape those skills? I would suggest that she is doing this by teaching knowledge *about* the skill. I’ve tried to elaborate on this a little further here:

  8. Brian Caesar // 12 October 2017 at 16:57 // Reply

    Marzano identify two types of knowledge: Declarative and Procedural.
    He refers to declarative knowledge as vocabulary, facts, details , generalisations and principles.
    The what of knowledge.
    He refers to procedural knowledge as the’ how to do something’. This is the skill that consists of mental procedures like algorithms and heuristics.
    Each type of knowledge is taught in a different way but Marzano emphasise the point that all procedural knowledge has a cognitive component that must be taught before the skill can be shaped through practice to automaticity.
    Based on this research, I concur to some degree. Why? Because the cognitive aspect of a skill can be taught but the actual shaping of the skilled must be modelled then practiced to automaticity.

  9. Kevin Higginson // 27 January 2018 at 20:22 // Reply

    You can only gain the skills by practicing them in the context. We could learn the routine of lifting the clutch pedal, while depressing the clutch pedal, with the engine off. It is only when there is an outcome, success or failure, that the understanding of what the skill is develops. Contexts also give learners the opportunity to use experience to help frame whether their answers are appropriate, especially in maths. I have been teaching Level 3 core maths this year, and the rate of progress of students understanding of using multipliers for percentages has been amazing, when it is put in the context of money.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Computers, marking and the ultimate ethical rule – The (il)logical teacher

Leave a Reply to Caroline Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: