Knowledge-rich and skills-rich

We can learn a lot from the telly. Skills competitions like ‘Bake Off’ and ‘Strictly’ and quiz shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Mastermind’ are among the most popular programmes on TV.

These shows fall into two main camps, reflecting a skills / knowledge divide. But both types speak to our deep interest in both learning and skills.

‘Bake Off’, ‘Strictly’ and other skills-based competitions celebrate the ‘doing’. We are shown both the process and the product of the contestants’ learning and the purpose is clear: to make something delicious to certain specifications or to perform something entertaining in a particular style or tradition. The purpose, the process and the product are all ‘in the room’; we see the point of it all and we get a sense of the learning journey the contestants have been on, often by watching them practice and struggle. We also know that they didn’t develop these skills purely for the show, they are useful beyond the competition.

In contrast, ‘University Challenge’ or ‘Mastermind’ seem to be celebrations of pure ‘knowing’. The contestants are tested on their recall of a range of discrete facts in a way which is disconnected from their usefulness. While we can admire their performance in accessing this knowledge, the purpose and process of acquiring it are not ‘in the room’ and are not shared with us. We assume that the contestants can recall the names of composers, artists and writers because they have some interest in their work, but none of that is shown. Contestants may well prepare for general knowledge quizzes, but presumably the quiz is not the main reason they know about subatomic particles or Chinese dynasties. Their general knowledge is the product of a useful broad general education and what we are watching is an entertaining side-effect of that learning rather than its actual purpose.

In their various ways, all these shows are celebrating learning by showing us how it changes people. In Ofsted terms, the skills competition has clear ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ as well as demonstrating the ‘impact’ of learners’ performance. The quiz show is a bit less transparent; the performances may be impressive, but we would need to dig a little deeper to see the connection between ‘impact’, ‘implementation’ and original ‘intent’. Quiz performance, like exam performance, is a limited, though useful, proxy for the change which education seeks to bring about. Incidentally, it’s that ‘digging a little deeper’ into purpose and process which schools and colleges are likely to see more of under the new inspection framework.

Do these shows confirm a clear divide between practical and theoretical learning; the ‘vocational’ and the ‘academic’? I don’t think so. The fluent and skilful performances we see in the skills competitions are underpinned by plenty of prior knowledge which has been laid down by the contestants over time; knowledge about ingredients, tools and genres for instance. And the apparently disconnected knowledge and concepts being displayed in the quiz shows come from a meaningful context and can contribute to useful practical action such as solving problems and making new things.

The distinction between acquiring knowledge and developing skills is deeply embedded in our thinking. The ancient Greeks regarded ‘episteme’ or theoretical knowledge as quite independent from ‘techne’ or craft skill. The 20th century British philosopher Gilbert Ryle brought them a little closer to each other by describing them as two types of knowing which he called ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’, or ‘declarative’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge. The procedural will tend to be more specific and involve more senses because it is more ‘hands-on’. It is possible to go further and argue for a completely unified model where all knowledge is defined broadly as a capacity to ‘get things right’. The issue continues to provoke lively debate but however we choose to describe the relationship, it is clear that knowledge and skill are highly interlinked and interdependent in education as in life.

Assumptions about knowledge and skill also shape the way we describe our educational programmes. Terms such as ‘academic’, ‘applied’, ‘general’, ‘vocational’ and ‘technical’ suggest a spectrum ranging from the knowledge-rich ‘academic’ to the skills-rich ‘technical’. But as soon as we start to examine the content of each type of course and what students on them actually do, some of these distinctions start to blur. For instance, there’s no doubt that the new T Levels will require a great deal of knowledge acquisition while also having a very substantial work-based component. On the other hand, A Level subjects require students to demonstrate a wide range of subject specific and more general skills, such as essay writing.

 This labelling of qualifications suffers from ‘jingle-jangle’ (no, not the fictional street drug from the American TV series ‘Riverdale’). ‘Jingle’ is the use of one term to describe different things and ‘jangle’ is when different terms are used to describe the same thing. So ‘general qualification’ is a fairly ‘jingly’ term covering a range of very different courses from an Applied General in Business to an A Level in Philosophy. On the other hand, the terms ‘Vocational’ and ‘Technical’ are often used in a ‘jangly’ way. According to the government, Technical qualifications require “the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry”, a definition which could serve equally well for vocational qualifications. Inevitably, the noise of all this jingling and jangling can get in the way of understanding the role of qualifications.

These labels are also used to define the purposes of qualifications and sometimes to place those purposes on a pedestal. For instance, the current review of qualifications at level 3 and below in England talks in terms of qualifications being designed to ‘lead directly to a clearly defined outcome’ and ‘delivering on their purpose’ which is either employment (for T Levels) or further study (for A Levels). At this point, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that qualifications do not ‘deliver’ outcomes. They are taken by students, who then use them for a range of purposes in the real world based on their value and currency. The qualification outcome represents something useful about what the student knows and can do, but in practice, the qualification market, the labour market and individual learner journeys do not provide uniform or linear routes. Plenty of A level students don’t progress to higher education and plenty of vocational and technical students do – this is evidence of the value of those qualifications, not a sign of their failure.

Take a graded piano exam or a driving test; designed to accredit your ability to do something to a particular standard. Passing the test does not carry with it any expectation or requirement to play the piano in public or drive a car regularly, and the qualification is not judged in terms of how many professional pianists or drivers are ‘delivered’. And what of the Performing Arts student who becomes a lawyer or the Mediaeval History graduate who becomes a banker – did their qualifications ‘deliver’ for them?

If the implied polarity between knowledge and skill doesn’t make sense at the course level, it’s even less helpful at the human level. Labelling students as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ based on the type of course they are on feels like categorising them as either a ‘knower’ or a ‘doer’. This does everyone a disservice and only limits our concept of we are capable of.

For education to fully develop our capacities, it needs to do justice to the full range of possibilities and provide all students with the opportunity to both know important and interesting things and do important and interesting things without seeing these as separate spheres.

And yet further education is often described as the ‘skills sector’ tasked with ‘delivering skills’ – as if they could be detached from knowledge and passed on free of that troublesome burden. No educational project involves a transfer of useful knowledge; it can’t be knowledge-free. And we would not be doing our job as educators if we offered a ‘knowledge-poor’ curriculum.

But although calling for a knowledge-rich curriculum for all post-16 students should not be controversial it still feels a bit subversive. And there are risks. In emphasising the importance of knowledge, we need to guard against the fetishization of facts. Acquiring knowledge in disconnected gobbets is of very limited use. What makes knowledge useful is the connecting and reconnecting of the things we know to each other, and the fluency with which we can mobilise those mental schemas of linked knowledge which help us understand, recall and apply.

Having agreed that knowledge is vital, we then need to ask how we select which knowledge we value most and which knowledge is actually most useful. This can require us to challenge historical power structures and received wisdom to make room for different perspectives. But when we ask “whose knowledge, serving whose interests?” we are challenging current curricula, not the importance of knowledge itself.

Planning any educational programme necessarily involves carefully selecting essential or useful knowledge and thinking about how it builds on prior knowledge and paves the way for the acquisition of more knowledge. But arguing that knowing stuff is all there is, is a bit like saying ‘subatomic particles are all there is’. It may be true at one level but even knowing about all the subatomic particles in the universe wouldn’t help to explain the complex interactions and dynamic change which they are involved in at higher levels.

Running alongside this, we should also be advocating an entitlement to a skills-rich curriculum. Doing, applying, creating, putting into practice, developing, practising and refining in all sorts of contexts are key to learning. We should not regard practical, applied or contextual learning as being of a lower order.

In making the case for a more creative, skills-rich curriculum we should guard against claiming that focusing on knowledge necessarily implies irrelevant content, a decontextualized curriculum, rote learning or high-stakes tests. These things don’t automatically flow from a commitment to knowledge and ‘skills-boosting’ doesn’t have to be paired with ‘knowledge-bashing’.

We should also avoid making claims about practical skills which ‘embody’ them or locate them beyond normal learning. For instance, the skill of a brilliant pianist or craftsperson may appear to be located ‘in their hands’. While it may have shaped their physical development and the habits of performance may seem like second nature, this is still a learnt fluency, developed through intelligent practice and informed by knowledge and culture. Claiming these skills are ineffable just mystifies them and gets in the way of trying to understand them or help people acquire them.

Being able to do stuff requires both knowledge and skill. Trying to separate out the acquisition of skill as if it is a completely different type of learning – as in the ‘skills strategy’ or the ‘skills sector’ – is like trying to detach a current from the water which it travels through. They can be described separately but are inseparable in practice. While it may be useful to understand the components of a skill, such atomised competences are not much use in isolation. Becoming skilled can’t be achieved through the simple accumulation of competences, and becoming a skilled engineer, a skilled historian or a caring, responsible citizen is an emergent process which can’t be achieved rapidly or be measured on a simple scale.

So, rather than building barriers between knowing and doing, ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ should go hand in hand, making connections, emphasising the value of ‘learning by doing’, ‘knowing for doing’ and ‘doing as learning’ as ways of building on our previous knowledge and experience.

Whatever their starting point and wherever they are on their lifelong learning journey, our students need both knowledge and skills and their education should cherish and cultivate both. If we want the best possible curriculum, we need to make sure it nurtures our ‘dancer’, ‘baker’ and ‘mastermind’ capacities and possibilities by being rich in both knowledge and skills.

Originally published in the Times Educational Supplement in April 2019 here. You can also hear Eddie discuss knowledge and skill with Sarah Simons in an FE podcast on 25th April here.

See also:

What is powerful knowledge? (Aug 2015)

Skill shortage, training shortage or job shortage? (Feb 2016)

A short reading list:

Pat Ainley, ‘Class and Skill’ (1993)

John Dewey, ‘Experience and Education’ (1938)

Harold Entwistle, ‘Education, Work and Leisure’ (1970)

E.D. Hirsch, ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ (2016)

Paul Hirst, ‘Knowledge and the Curriculum’ (1975)

Richard Johnson, ‘‘Really useful knowledge’: 1790–1850’ (1988) in ‘Culture and Processes of Adult Learning’ (1993).

Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’ (1949)

Leesa Wheelahan, ‘Not just skills: what a focus on knowledge means for vocational education.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies (2015)

Terry Wrigley, ‘‘Knowledge’, Curriculum and Social Justice’, The Curriculum Journal (2018)

Michael Young et al, ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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