Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wiggle room

I’ve written this post as a contribution to the Feb 2015 #blogsync topic of ‘Knowledge Vs Skills’ (posted just in time!)

The ‘Knowledge Vs Skills’ debate is real. You may not have been aware of it, and it might be true, as Tom Sherrington contends, that in most classrooms teachers don’t really swing one way or another; but it is there, in the background.

You can find it all over the internet, with ‘Ed-tech’ spheres tending to the skills side of the debate, and ‘traditionalist’ blogs championing knowledge. I personally have inhabited the mentality of both extremes in my time, and tried to influence others accordingly, so it’s real. If only in me.

For those of you unfamiliar, I will attempt a dangerously simple summary of the positions:

Skills Side:          Real success in life comes from acting with ‘skill’. Rapid and unpredictable 21st Century societal evolution means that a more flexible set of skills is required for success than ever before. Information is now generated at frightening rates so teaching knowledge is futile. We should teach higher-order thinking skills and the ability to find knowledge slickly, as and when it is needed.

Knowledge Side:             Truly skilful behaviour emerges from repeated, thoughtful exposure to large amounts of relevant knowledge – in whatever form. A skill which grows out of one knowledge domain cannot simply be transplanted into another. Knowledge breeds knowledge and those who have more are better positioned to gain further more still. Hardly any of the knowledge which you or I were taught at school is now ‘out of date’ or irrelevant; and the explosion of information on the internet changes little in terms of fundamental truths about human thought and existence. To successfully ‘Google’ knowledge requires you to know what you’re looking for, what you’re looking at, and where that fits in amongst other knowledge. You can only actually thoughtfully manipulate, analyse and evaluate this knowledge once it is in your head alongside any other relevant knowledge.

One of the darlings of the 21st Century Skills movement is ‘creativity’, and I think this parody gets to the heart of how shallowly it is bandied around! Crucially I think – and this is my favourite bit of the knowledge side – real creativity is the spawn of arcane knowledge. You know all those useless bits of knowledge which you get taught at school? Which you wrestled with and which you now can’t remember because it has ceased to be relevant? That is the root source of all your most brilliantly creative intuitive breakthroughs (the things which Ken Robinson would have you believe emerge if we simply let kids breathe a little). Creative, intuitive insight arises from the subconscious brain associating disparate knowledge you wouldn’t consciously choose to put together.

You can probably assume from this last bit which side of the argument I now rest on.

BUT, but, but but but….. Isn’t there something just SO beguiling about the skills side that there has to be something to it? My grandma used to refer to people who “knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing…” Why are the winners of Mastermind or Egg Heads etc not the richest/ most powerful people on Earth if they are so knowledgeable? CLEARLY just having knowledge isn’t the same as acting skilfully, and surely we experience in our daily lives how people at the top of their ladders seem able to turn that skillfulness pretty successfully to all sorts of things?

Well, one simple answer to these points is that knowledge has to be worked on to turn it into understanding, and understanding has to be worked on to turn it into useful forms of action, and useful action has to be worked on to turn it into skilful behaviour. So it is clearly true that knowledge of pure ‘facts’ doesn’t breed skilful behaviour in itself.

And perhaps this is where we reach the most murky, confusing part of this debate, because I think there is a dangerous miscommunication of we really mean by *knowledge*, and what we really mean by *skill*?

For a start, ‘skill’ is sometimes used to simply describe something you can do. ‘I can count sheep’. But it is also used to imply something you do well. “Skillful behaviour”.

It seems to be this second area which is the focus of Daisy Christodoulou’s chapter on transferable skills in her pivotal “7 Myths…” book. She focuses on the transfer of expertise from one domain to another, drawing on Herb Simon’s investigations into what leads to top flight skill in playing chess (a huge store-house of memories of strategies which work from different positions, rather than the ability to actually think through the strategies themselves).

Essentially, it takes a huge amount of relevant experience (i.e. knowledge building) to become an expert in anything. There really is no short-cut to becoming an expert. So you can’t simply teach ‘expertise’ as a discrete end point. I trained for a while as an Air Force pilot. I would have liked it at the time if they had just been able to say – “Right, we want you to be the best of the best, so we’re going to cut to the chase, and simply teach you to do that final dog-fight sequence which Maverick pulls off in Top Gun”. But it simply doesn’t work like that.

Linked to this, we couldn’t simply stick Lewis Hamilton in a Typhoon jet and ask him to win a dog-fight. He F1 racing might indeed indicate that he would have the ‘Right Stuff’, but he’s still going to have to go through the full process of learning a completely different way of demonstrating it.

Hang-on though… I saw that programme where Gerry Robinson, formerly a very successful CEO of Granada Television, apparently ‘fixed’ the NHS (well, waiting-list problems in Rotherham General Hospital). Surely it would take years of learning about how the NHS works to be able to become an expert in how to make it work better? Well, no. Robinson’s ‘transferable’ expertise were in the realm of people management. He essentially enabled the people working in the hospital at the time to have a more productive working dynamic. He didn’t become an expert in large-scale healthcare.

As Dan Willingham points out, whilst it looks like top thinkers are simply good at analysing, synthesising, evaluating and applying ‘critical thinking skills’, how these different skills work in different domains is not only variable, it is intrinsically linked to the ‘deep structure’ of those domains. Essentially, being able to use higher-order thinking skills in a particular domain is an emergent property of a thorough understanding of that domain.

What can be developed and evenly applied to different domains are what he calls ‘metacognitive strategies’; if you like, simple habitual mental dispositions to approach thinking about things in certain ways, but these can only be of real use once the full deeper structure of a domain becomes understood by you.

An analogy which comes to mind would be that of learning lots of music theory. I won’t be now able to play any instrument up to a high level. Also, if I become an expert trombone player, I won’t be able to now play the violin to an expert level as well, even if my knowledge of music theory encompasses both instruments perfectly. The music theory will certainly assist in the learning of the instruments, but I’ve still got to go through the experience of learning to really know what it takes to play them with skill.

But this still isn’t everything that we think about regarding ‘skill’… there are simple, everyday procedures which we also think of as being skills, even though they are really just ‘knowledge-bred behavioural routines’ (my terminology!)

For example, the skill of counting sheep can simply be described as ‘know-how’ – a result of integrating various bits of ‘know-that’ knowledge into a behaviour. I know that a certain object is a sheep. I have had the cumulative principle pointed out to me. I have learntthe names of the numbers. I can put them together and know that the process of doing this is called ‘counting sheep’. Great! I can put ‘counting sheep’ down as a skill on my CV (it’s one of my more significant skills!)

Wait – hang on… surely if this is indeed a skill, then actually I have been taught a ‘transferrable skill’? Because if I can count sheep, then surely I can count pigs? All I need is a simple concept of an ‘object’ and then I’m away – I could count anything! Well, maybe not everything. Maybe not syllogisms, or ‘Munros’ or netball fouls. I would need whole new sets of knowledge to be able to go out and count them…

But as long as the key concept of a ‘discernibly discrete entity’ finds a meaningful thing to attach itself to, then I can count anything… hmm… doesn’t this count as a meaningful transferable skill…?

In practice, the more I think about these areas then the more certain truths seem clear to me:

  • You can’t teach skills separately from a knowledge base. It may seem that I can learn how to solve quadratic equations as a purely theoretical exercise, but my ability to do that links back in a chain to basic, foundational, concrete experiences of number.
  • ‘Bottom level’ skills – i.e. ‘know-how’ (or procedural knowledge) only really transfers to other domains in as much as the key relevant characteristics remain the same (and presumably we need to have found out that the key characteristics are the same)
  • ‘Metacognitive strategies’, such as isolated approaches to critical thinking, ultimately only give us a way of approaching an area, not a way into the heart of them on their own.


I think I can give derive some clear principles to take in the other direction:

  • Firstly… ‘metacognitive strategies’ still should be installed in the minds of learners however you might manage to do it, and made habitual where possible. They are the magic dust which can turn a pile of knowledge into something special.
  • Secondly… ‘Bottom level procedural routines’ (or whatever you want to call simple skills) should be taught as soon as someone is capable of learning them for three key reasons:
  1. We memorise and integrate knowledge through thinking about it, and we are most likely to think about it if we are attempting to apply it in some practical way.
  2. Many ‘knowledgeable routines’ and ‘metacognitive strategies’ are knowledge multipliers. In olden times (pun intended), investing time in dictionary skills paid back many times over in terms of time saved searching through alphabetical-order data-bases, and the ability to gain access to relevant knowledge. Similarly, information literacy skills, or reading strategies DO help learners get more out of their researching and reading.
  3. Any ‘skill’ which we learn may only be directly transferable to a very narrow spectrum of activities. BUT elements of it may transfer to a much larger number of activities, reducing the amount which needs to be mastered in those areas. For example, the key physical skills of soccer and hockey may seem very different. One uses the feet, one uses the hands. However, someone who has become an expert soccer player is likely to achieve an expert level in hockey quicker than someone who is an expert gymnast. Both of them are likely to be physically fit, but the type of fitness that the football player has will be more suited to playing hockey, and, more importantly, their tacit understanding of ‘attack and defence’ games will lead to a strong strategic game sense (creating space when you’ve got the ball, closing down space when you’re defending etc.) One of the things I like most when teaching a child times-tables is showing them how each time they learn a particular set, they have proportionally reduced what is left to be learnt of each of the other tables. I believe that skill learning really does work in this way.

I remember Douglas Archibald, the Director of the Whole Education network describing knowledge and skills as ‘warp and weft’. The best education for our children really should try to weave them together as closely as is cognitively possible throughout their educational lives. If we have gifted our children with a few pieces of knowledge, get them to engage with it, by manipulating it in some way.

I know that the ‘knowledge’ side to the ‘knowledge vs skills’ debate is in some sense reacting against a certain naiveté of the 21st Century Skills movement, which has actually been around for centuries in different guises. Nevertheless, perhaps one of the reasons it keeps coming back is a tendency on the traditionalist side to retreat into ‘knowledge is all’ reductionist positions which seem to imply a dismissal of any notion of ‘skills’ being things which we can directly nurture in children.

Perhaps the binary language of *knowledge* and *skills* is ultimately at fault. Perhaps we need a completely fresh way of talking about this area which better identifies the constructs and dynamics involved in learning. Until then however, I suspect that the see-saw is just going to keep on going.


5 thoughts on “Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wiggle room

  1. Maybe the most knowledgeable people are not the richest/most powerful because they realise that this is not what they want to do with their knowledge? Even that it is not the route to the kind of fulfilment they perhaps value more?


    • Thanks ij!
      I think it’s definitely true that my point about Mastermind etc is a tenuous conjecture – wisdom could certainly lead people to not play the games of society. I would love to have a chance to really chat to someone who trades on knowing ‘a lot’ about ‘a lot’ – such as one of the ‘Chasers’ from ‘The Chase’ to find out whether they have an above-average ability to think profoundly about things, or whether for them the need to accumulate lots of simple associations prevents them from ever stopping and dwelling for particularly long on the implications and applications for what they know.

      I suppose what I’m trying to get to the heart of with that is that we clearly have a concept of people who ‘have’ but don’t ‘use’, although that could be an illusion. It could be that knowledge self-organizes and cross-references in the most pertinent way as circumstances arise, leading inevitably to skillful thinking and behaviour. But I suspect there are particular kinds of procedural knowledge which we can seed and fuel in people’s minds to help them get the more out of their other knowledge, and it seems to me that the patterns of these leave transferable shadows which can be picked-up on in new areas of endeavour (i.e. elements of skills are transferable). I think this is where the natural associative nature of the brain must kick-in a bit (“oh yeah, this reminds me of…” – we see analogies and we start to act accordingly).

      My posts of course are entirely speculative!

      Thanks again,



  2. Pingback: How Progressivism cripples creativity, and how to stop Traditionalism from stifling it | Stepping Back a Little

  3. Pingback: Remodelling the ideal teacher: Sage 2.0 | Stepping Back a Little

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