Knowledge as the currency of teaching

In my last post I argued that skill cannot be taught, by which I meant that skill cannot be taught directly.  Instead, I argued that knowledge is what is taught, and that skilled performance is what emerges when this is put into practice. This sparked a fairly interesting array of responses, so I thought I would elaborate further on these ideas in a follow-up post.

As Hirst put it some years ago, teaching is an intentional act. To teach is to intend to cause someone else to learn. As teachers, this means we have to think about the thing that we want to teach: we need to identify its nature, its structures, its associations, and so on. We then have to express that thinking about the thing being taught in some form of communication, most commonly the spoken word.

And what is it that we communicate? Even if there is an array of non-know-that things that live inside our minds (whether those be know-how, skill, ability, or something else), when you communicate with someone about those things, you are necessarily having to express this in terms of language about those things.*

This was the root of my argument about the teaching of skill. If I am skilled in some performance, and I want you to become skilled in that performance, then the medium through which that transition happens is the language of know-that statements. I must first intellectualise the skill in order to work out how to communicate it. I must then communicate it, you must hear the communication and interpret it, and then you must apply that inside your own mind in order to begin to develop the skill yourself.

To be taught, skill must be converted into knowledge, which is the currency of teaching, and then it must be converted back at the other end via practice. If someone is observing you practice, then, again, any communication about that practice (i.e feedback) must be converted into the currency of knowledge for communication to happen.

Some respondents to my last blog argued that this is just a semantic detail, but I am not convinced this is the case. Arguments about knowledge and skill are often tired and stagnant, and in part this is because we, as an educational community, have not always been very clear at what we mean by these terms and how they relate to one another. Greater clarity in terms of the role of taught knowledge in the growth of skills is one possible avenue by which we might move ourselves on as a community,


*One possible counter-argument here is to refer to modelling or demonstration. If I want to teach someone to do a handstand, or hold a pen, I might model this for them by doing it myself. I would argue however that doing the thing itself is not the same as teaching it. Whenever a teacher models something, there is communication (before, during or after the event) about the thing being modelled. If it were the case that modelling = teaching, then everyone would be teaching everything one does all of the time. Technically, when you model something you temporarily make yourself the object of study about which you are teaching.





12 Comments on Knowledge as the currency of teaching

  1. Hi there, I think there is one piece missing here: neither in this post nor in the previous one did you define SKILL. Without that, of course it looks semantic…

    • Michael Fordham // 12 October 2017 at 18:09 // Reply

      Good point, it was left implicit. My preference here is for the following OED definition:

      “Capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also, an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice (usually pl.).”

      • Robert Craigen // 18 October 2017 at 19:27 //

        It is a good point, and it is important to understand that “skill” as a category is too generic to be useful unless clearly delinearted. There are higher skills (imagination, critical thinking, problem solving) and lower skills (single-digit arithmetic, recalling names, dates, places, simplifying algebraic expressions).

        In UK when an educator says “skills” they generally mean “higher skills”. In north america the meaning is mixed but generally “skills” means “lower skills” like long division.

        So we see in UK the so-called “Facts versus skills” debate and in North America (Western Canada at any rate) we see the “Skills versus understanding” debate. They are — modulo the slightest nuances of meaning — exactly the same debate. But look how “skills” appears to have changed sides. That’s because there isn’t a fixed, universal meaning to the word in this context.

        I have to continually translate when reading British educational writing, or much sounds like nonsense to me. The same may be true going the other way.

        One solution might be to always preface with a qualifier: “basic skills”, “lower skills” versus “cognitive skills” or “higher skills”.

        Some think “lower” and “higher” indicate value judgement and priority, but these are deceptive. In fact, “higher” probably are what most of us value most highly. But there is no road to higher skills that does not pass through lower skills. Therefore — for novices at any rate — the development of LOWER skills is the biggest priority. Just as when you’re teaching an athlete how to win races … if they can’t walk or run yet, those are the priority, though they may seem of lesser importance in the “big scheme” of being on the podium.

  2. Tom Burkard // 12 October 2017 at 19:21 // Reply

    After reading all the comments on your last post, I’m amazed we’ve got this far without a mention of our old friend, Bloom (he of the pyramid). After all, it’s pretty hard to imagine AfL without him. And even if it’s impossible to write a good essay without adequate knowledge (not the least, knowledge of how to structure a sentence, a paragraph and an essay), the quality of the final product will depend crucially upon ability and cleverness. In other words ‘g’.

    Where the profession has gone wrong is in assuming that cleverness can be taught. Insofar as it entails the ability to understand and use abstract language, the least able pupils will never succeed. Feedback such as “you need to develop explanations of inferred meanings drawing on evidence across the text” will leave a pretty substantial percentage of our pupils none the wiser, no matter how hard or how skillfully the teacher tries to explain what this means.

    However, it’s almost an article of faith in education that the purpose of schooling is to make kids ‘cleverer’, and too much teaching is conducted on the upper slopes of Bloom. However you define skills, it’s well to keep in mind that for educators, the holy grail is finding out how to teach decontextualised skills.

  3. “I would argue however that doing the thing itself is not the same as teaching it. . . . If it were the case that modelling = teaching, then everyone would be teaching everything one does all of the time.”

    If you’re going to distinguish between modeling and teaching, then I am going to argue that modeling is more important than teaching. (I also wonder if you’re a parent. An observant parent would never make the claim of yours that I quote above.) How do kids learn to walk? Talk? Gain enough knowledge to grab their own knife and try to cut their own food? Parents soon realize how much kids observe and then try for themselves. Unfortunately, schools are largely responsible for destroying this natural inclination to observe and learn and to experiment and learn.

    Of course, parents and teachers can also model unwanted behavior, thereby undermining the things they want to teach. If a teacher or a parent tells students that reading is important and then forces students to read at a certain time and for a certain length of time and then goes binge-watch Netflix while the young person is reading, the thing that is learned is that reading isn’t that important, but those screens certainly are.

    As i said previously, I think the debate is really about knowledge that does nurture skill building versus knowledge that does not necessarily lead to skill building. And as I said before, I would much rather that I knew how to frame a house than I knew that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

    • I understand that you are trying to rationalize direct instruction, but direct instruction is useless without a willing learner. I teach my five-year-old phonics. I use direct instruction in my approach. But I am successful because he wants to learn to read. Why does he have this desire? Because my two older children (13 and 11) are voracious readers and his mom and dad read a lot. He has seen older people, people he trusts and loves do this thing, and because of the good model he has had, he has a desire to learn that thing. Now, without the model, I could end up using a system of rewards and punishments to get him to do something he doesn’t really want to do, but then I’d just be giving him a skill that later in life he really doesn’t want to practice.

      As I said earlier, I think you are focused on the wrong thing. Who cares about the knowledge/skills debate if you haven’t yet understood motivation and modeling (and the importance of building trusting and loving relationships).

      • Tom Burkard // 13 October 2017 at 03:56 //

        I’ve taught children phonics for over a quarter of a century, both in school and privately. It’s extremely rare to encounter a child who doesn’t want to learn to read. Children only become demotivated when they are asked to do tasks which are too difficult–such as using ineffective guessing strategies when they encounter unfamiliar words. Many, if not most, of the pupils I taught had been demotivated, but all it took to get them started again was to find out what they knew already, and then to start at the right level using the simple technique used by all military instructors: explain, demonstrate, imitate, practice. I can assure you that I didn’t have loving relationships with my pupils; as a male, it would have been highly inappropriate. Yes, I had to win their trust, but that was only a matter of proving that I was a competent teacher.

      • Richard // 13 October 2017 at 05:34 //

        Let’s be clear, Tom, I am not talking about romantic love. (I see no reason for loving another human being to be inappropriate unless you automatically equate love and sex, which then is a problem you need to deal with yourself.) I am talking about a deep care for people, philia or agape. There’s actually a high school football coach in Baltimore, Maryland (USA) who tells his players each day that he loves them. Why? Because they need to be loved by a man. They need the example of how to love. (They need love modeled.) But I can tell from your comment that you and I have different beliefs about the role of a teacher–and probably wildly different definitions of love.

        The problem with your military analogy is that schools aren’t preparing students for war. Also, there is wonderful research about the fact that math–to use your terminology–should be taught through practice, demonstrate, explain, practice.

        I’ve seen a lot of teachers who would argue their students trust them, but I’ve also seen a lot of those teachers ask students to have their parents sign homework logs, reading logs, pop quizzes, reading quizzes etc. What you say and how you act must be consistent.

        Finally, there is much more to motivation than just making sure that something is not “too difficult.” Some students just aren’t interested in the material some teachers have to teach–and rightly so. That’s why student choice is such a great motivator. Nothing makes me laugh harder than the teacher who calls a student lazy because s/he doesn’t complete the assigned work because s/he is working hard at something else that could be equally, if not more, important.

      • Tom Burkard // 13 October 2017 at 11:55 //

        Richard–The version of love you are talking about is clearly romantic, even if it isn’t remotely sexual, and it is completely irrelevant in terms of pupils’ motivation. Time and time again, the parents of my private pupils–who admitted that their child’s teacher had failed them in terms of teaching them to read–would exonerate them because they were so ‘caring’. Be this as it may, most of these kids suffered grievously, very much as my son did before we taught him to read. Kids are not naturally good, nor do they become good simply because their teachers are caring. The ones who fall behind in reading are all but guaranteed to be taunted as a ‘thicko’–and nothing the teacher does can compensate for that.

        Getting my pupils motivated again was quite simple. After I assessed them, I told them that if my teaching confused them, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I told them that in the army, if a soldier fails to learn what they’re taught, it’s automatically assumed that the instructor was at fault–you can’t have it any other way when you’re playing with lethal toys. Likewise, if my teaching confused them, it would be very mean and cowardly if I, as the adult, were to attribute this to any shortcomings in the pupil. In other words, I took a huge burden off their shouders–one placed upon them by caring but incompetent teachers who’ve had the old saw about ‘the learning belonging to the child’ drilled into them in training.

        Obviously, the way I teach defies your beliefs, and you can’t believe it actually works. Children love working to beat their ‘personal best’ in subjects as boring as developing automatic recall of number bonds. And they aren’t stupid–they know perfectly well that learning basic skills is a hurdle they have to overcome to become a fully-functioning adult.

      • Richard // 16 October 2017 at 05:26 //

        I understand the type of teacher you’re talking about, Tom. However, you have no, nor would you ever be able to gather any, evidence that I am one of those types of teachers.

        I urge you to do more reading about motivation and the role empathy and autonomy play into it. I recommend reading about Self-Determination Theory.

        I find it interesting, though, that you tell me in one post that all you have to do to get your students motivated again is to give them work that is not too difficult (and I assume not too easy), and then in your next post you tell me that getting your pupils motivated again was quite simple. You didn’t mention this time that it had anything to do with the difficulty of the coursework. This time you state that you had to show them you were on their side, that you would take responsibility for their learning, and that you would never blame them for not understanding something you’ve said or demonstrated. It seems to me that your care and concern for your students trumps your lesson in terms of motivators.

        Also, children may not be naturally good, but they are all naturally curious, experimental, and self-directed learners. The trouble is that schools and many adults do their best to try to destroy these natural inclinations. (The change used to take place in middle school. Now early elementary school kids are showing an ennui with what the crap most schools are peddling.) As the evolutionary neurobiologist John Medina has said, if we take everything we know about the way the brain learns and we created a place that was the antithesis of all we know, we’d create schools.

  4. Really interesting points from everyone.

    Broadly most people seem to agree it takes time (through practice) to hone skills. So my question is: how much time should teachers devote to honing skills verses moving on to teach new knowledge (that could develop other skills)? As an example, you might teach a class to become highly proficient at group-based discussion but then run out of time to teach some of the course content in depth. This assumes there’s finite time and you can’t do everything. Obviously there’s a balance to be struck – but how does the seesaw look? Are there skills like communication that we expect pupils to hone outside of school…and what if they don’t?

    One issue is that it is tricky and somewhat subjective to assess skill levels whereas, at least in principle, it is easier to access levels of knowledge.

  5. It may be true that one can “model” a lot of stuff without talking, but even in this cases it seems that a kind of “labelling” of important aspects of this acting clearly supports learning and remembering (retrieval). Another point, let’s call it a “Vygotskian* one, may be that the introduction of concepts (words or other symbolic means) changes what it is that is taught and learned: Concepts would open a world of “activities”, cultural and conceptual bound and motivated acting. Concepts also add an additional layer of potential skills, as they allow the action relying on general, theoretical and abstract rules, thus enabling humans to act beyond the realm of pure empirical “givens”.

    I think, you are right, Michael, though I guess you may think about the notion of “knowledge” – wouldn’t “concept” actually be more accurate to make clear the distinction to “pure” modeling?

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