Some knowledge-skills interplay.

Give your brain a work-out...
Give your brain a work-out…

This is a bit of a stream of consciousness post…I’m just throwing out thoughts that I have on this issue in an unstructured manner.

Here’s a Quick Quiz starter to warm you up:

  • What is the capital of Equatorial Guinea?
  • What is the highest flow rate of the Zambezi River?
  • Name five members of the Shadow Cabinet  in 1958
  • How many prime numbers lie between 101 and 1001?
  • By what other name is the classic short story ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak known?
  • What is the key molecular structural difference between a gel and a foam?
  • Which Battalion in the Crimean War suffered the greatest losses?
  • What, in detail, were the key reforms sought by the Anti-Corn Law League formed in 1838?
  • Who won the FA Cup in 1891?
  • What is the value of the Electric Permittivity of Free Space?
  • What happens to Sam in ‘The Fear’ by Charlie Higson?
  • Berapa lama tingal disini?
  • What is the keyboard shortcut for a screen shot on an imac?
  • What are the structural characteristics of the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 1st Symphony in D Major?
  • How many kJ of energy are contained in a This Juicy Water Lemon and Limes drink per 100ml?
  • How was the Chamizal Dispute resolved?
  • Name three 18th Century Prime Ministers.

Knowledge.  KNOWLEDGE. You can’t get enough of it.  No-one ever complains of having too much knowledge.  My son can name a full squad of footballers derived from the Bundesliga or from Brazil.    My wife can name all the plants in the garden.  My daughter is an expert on the life and times of Katniss Everdeen.  I know none of these things but I can name 10 education bloggers who know a lot about knowing knowledge.. and I know all the answers to the quiz.

I know Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism; but I don’t know useful things like how to fix the boiler or give CPR.  I have a Masters in Development Studies – so I know quite a lot about UN intervention in Somalia from 1991-93 even though it is of little use to anyone now.  I can’t make a cake without a recipe even though I’ve done it lots of times. I used to know how to use eigenvectors in conjunction with Schrodinger’s equation to solve quantum mechanics problems… but don’t ask me now. That’s long gone. I know how to toggle the ‘favourite’ status on a tweet but I can’t work out the controls on a FiFA13 console despite trying for hours.  I know the back-catalogue of Echo and the Bunnymen and Eyeless in Gaza but know nothing of Brahms, Smetana and N Dubz…except their names; although I know that I don’t know any of their work.

What is the point of knowledge? Is it enough just to know –  like a stone or a blade of grass which have no intrinsic purpose per se; they just exist.  Is knowing for knowing’s sake valid/invalid?; does knowledge only have value through utility; through practical application?  Whatever the answer, surely there is no debate about whether knowledge matters in some form. If you think we’re ‘preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet’, or that straight-up fact-delivery is doing just that anyway… is there a meaningful debate on this that takes us anywhere?

Is it useful to answer this question?  ‘Is it more important to know facts than to have the skills to find out?’ Or to resolve this: you need a good bedrock of factual knowledge to understand the context of any text….but you need to understand the context for factual knowledge to make enough sense to learn it in the first place?

Is it not more important to answer these questions:

  • Which bits of knowledge should we all know in order to function as citizens of one family, community, nation, planet?
  • Which knowledge areas are arbitrary or subject to cultural or personal preference and which areas are universal?
  • In a democracy, who decides these things? Does a class teacher (unelected but someone I can talk to) have more or less right to decide than a Secretary of State (elected but not by me)… or should parents have a say? Can students meaningfully determine content of their curriculum if they don’t know what there is to know?
  • Are there identifiable, reproducible ways to acquire knowledge that are more effective than others?
  • Are there ways of acquiring knowledge that can also enable us to develop skills and personal attributes that we might not otherwise develop?
  • Is it actually that the quality of any process is much more critical than the process itself – ie a poor fact-driven teacher vs a superb ‘learning power’ driven teacher – or the other way around?
  • Are competency-curriculum models and knowledge-based curriculum models ultimately that different or do we have the scale wrong? Is it ‘milk first, then tea’ vs ‘tea first then milk’… rather than tea or juice? (Still with me?)

Recent Y6 Learning  Episodes.

At my son’s school they have a regular lesson called: ‘Topic‘.  In the Spring they did ‘Raging Rivers’.

Scene-setting homework: Find out about a river of your choice.  My son was on the internet for an hour or so and made an A4 factfile on the Nile featuring a map, some photos and some facts.  List the skills needed to do that… and the knowledge. He learned that the Nile passes through lots of countries; that only 20+% of it is in Eqypt; where it starts and how narrow the fertile region is on either side.  He now knows all of these facts; at one point he could recite the countries in order that the Nile passes through.  He does not know any of this about the Amazon or the Mississippi – but he could find out; he learned about the Nile by himself.    Since then he did a lot of classwork and he told me yesterday about ox-bow lakes, meanders and flood plains.  He was taught this stuff and found it interesting.

This term ‘Topic’ features World War II.  I envy my son this opportunity… and my daughter who is doing this at GCSE.  I know lots about spinning jennies and road building in the 18th century…but war was apparently out of fashion in the 1970s when I did History .

My son’s preparatory homework: ‘Find out about WWII’:  Giantly open question. He used a good BBC website which he selected (ie he hadn’t been asked to use it) and wrote a page of notes in preparation for the first whole-class lesson.  He found out that more civilians died than soldiers; which nations formed the ‘allies’ – even though he pronounced this ‘allees’ until I put him straight.  He found out the dates and the names of the main military personnel.  He noted that the ‘fun facts’ feature of the site seemed inappropriate next to a section on the Holocaust. In the lesson they shared their findings to ‘get the conversation started’.  My son uses ‘conversation’ instead of ‘discussion’. They had a conversation about the Holocaust in class recently; ‘conversation’ lessons are his favourite kind he tells me: “no writing or powerpoint, just talking and listening to everyone’s ideas.”  Later Topic linked with English: after watching a video, they wrote empathetic diary entries based on Londoners’ experience in the Blitz and the teacher gave a visual quiz the following week; they had to recall the faces of Stalin, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini and  Chamberlain. He said he knew them.

Skills, knowledge, skills, knowledge..In all of this where does one end and one begin in any helpful sense? At least in Chicken and Egg, we know the answer is Egg. Definitely Egg. But Knowledge vs Skills?? It’s much less clear to me.

Cover to the classic 'Der Mussolini' by Deutsch Amerikanesche Freundschaft
Cover to the classic ‘Der Mussolini’ by Deutsch Amerikanesche Freundschaft

Y11 Physics Experiences.

In the run-in to the exams this summer, I noticed that my Y11 sloggers and plodders were doing better on the past-paper questions than some of the intuitive thinkers who are less inclined to swot and less linear.  This may show in the final results.

My best ever GCSE results from a class came after a mad cramming dash to the finish in a reduced-time situation where every lesson featured past-paper questions.  Teaching to the test to the max.  It worked.  A*s galore.  Physics take-up at Alevel – not good.  Did they enjoy it? No.  Were they better at Physics? No.

My Co-construction approach has allowed us to cover the full iGCSE syllabus in full.  I’m anticipating strong results this summer.  But, along the way, they had opportunities to plan a lesson,  to explain some concepts to a whole class; to organise themselves and take responsibility for organising equipment; and to assess their peers work by marking books and giving feedback.  They developed some skills that are not required for a GCSE syllabus and which will never be assessed. They also know a lot of physics facts.

My students are given a formula book with the equations of motion.  I know them off by heart..  I never have to look them up and feel good about that.  But does that make me better at Physics? No.  It’s just handy.  Similarly I know the mass of an electron, the specific heat capacity of water, and the value of mass of a pion in mega-electron-volts. I’d like to know what the Standard Model Equations actually mean at a mathematical level but I fear my neural pathways don’t stretch that far…(if that’s how it works).

Nope... you've lost me.
Nope… you’ve lost me.


I once had to teach about colloids and gels for an iGCSE Chemistry course.  I had no idea what they were. I learned it from the text book,  taught it and forgot it soon after.  What is a colloid? I don’t know..I’ll have to look it up again.  This is as close as I’ve ever come to feeling that learning facts for the sake of an exam is pointless.  It could have been this:  An ibble is an obble made of collections of dibbles linked by miffles  – shown in an abstract diagram.  EXAM:  How are miffles, dibbles and obbles connected to form ibbles?  Answer: Copy out the diagram learned from memory!  A bit like the Dylan Wiliam water diagram: show students a model of water molecules….they often still think the water is in between the molecules.


If you tell me (as a learner, parent or teacher) that a curriculum is NOT about knowledge – it is about skills –  I will think it must be soft waffle that I’d run a mile from. If you tell me that, by focusing on skills and planning explicitly for skill development, we will be delivering a curriculum packed with knowledge… I will think about it differently.  If you say the primary objective of a lesson is to develop resilience and team working skills… I will be dubious.  If, however, you say that through a set of activities based on developing deep level knowledge and understanding in a concrete learning discipline, students will have opportunities to demonstrate resilience and to work in teams… I will think differently about it.  Do I want my children to learn History and Geography and Science – as disciplines that hang together based on years of tradition and thought? Yes.  Do I care if they spend time self-assessing their capacity for working independently or for collaborative reciprocity?  Yes I do…  I just want them to get on with it.

Answers to the Quiz:

I learned these things for myself; so can you.


  1. Thank goodness for this post – I came back from Wellington’s festival feeling that the whole knowledge/skills debate was unnecessarily divisive, wanting to organise my thinking on it, and here you have encapsulated it brilliantly! In English teaching, there’s rarely a moment where you don’t need skills in order to access knowledge, or knowledge to access skills. One without the other is – as you say – rather pointless.


  2. An excellent post. I’ve always felt that knowledge without skills (or skills without knowledge) would be like Morecame without Wise – you can see that there might be an act there, but you know that it is not quite going to work. The bit of the knowledge/core knowledge debate which worries me most is still this: what I always wanted to do as a teacher was to get pupils to )think), to think hard, to think for themselves, to question what they were offered. You need knowledge for that (otherwise its just chippiness) but you need to work hard at it. I have seen my own children laboriously copy out facts for homeworks (barely worth doing) and waste hours preparing powerpoint presentation (ditto), but the key is to use the knowledge and skills we offer young people to biuld their ability to think openly, creatively and productively. Where the knoweldge-skills debate is at its least productive is where is deals with the low level, the mundane – and the idea which connects them for me, is the challenge of building thinking – the question “why”


    • Thanks Chris. I agree. At some level we absorb random bits of knowledge all the time – through reading and general engagement with the world – but ultimately the ‘why’ is key. Sometimes I think the skills-orientation is a proxy for a debate about engagement; not every learner can commit to the hard work aspect if there isn’t sufficient intrinsic value in the learning tasks – but it’s a mistake to knock the knowledge content as if that is the inherent issue.


  3. Another superb post Tom and see my recent one on this debate: Sometimes you learn more insights into education by observing your own children, even though this isn’t evidence-informed. My 12 year old daughter shared an RE essay with her parents a few days ago and we were both blown away by her knowledge and skills used in explaining her views on what was a difficult, personal concept. There is hope then in education …


  4. Hi Tom, really thought provoking. Do you find that your blogging subtlety influences teaching in your own school? Clearly it influences policies, and so on, but does it help your staff to see your thinking and thoughts. I imagine in many schools only the more senior leaders see this in a tangible way… Thoughts appreciated, thanks.


    • Hi Neil, Some specific ideas may have some influence but more widely the spirit of the blog is seen as supporting teachers in developing their practice the way they want to. I hope that has some influence. However, several staff follow the blog and it does generate lots of interesting discussions. I often share links to some posts to all staff when I think there might be the interest.


  5. Great, thanks, I really enjoyed this.
    I think we should start using the word understanding more – i.e. knowledge applied in context.
    My kids also have great teachers, there are lots of them about.
    I think like Tim that there is something more going on behind this debate. If we think about what’s easy and cheap to test, then facts fit the bill perfectly.


  6. I couldn’t agree more with Sue. Facts and skills can be held up as right or wrong and are putatively easier to measure – therefore politically expedient in debates related to recouping ‘rigour’, increasing attainment, decreasing social divides, and providing a skilled workforce. In addition to providing contextual learning-in-the-round opportunities, more research should go into how to assess young people’s more elusive social capacities related to: empathy, cooperation, collaboration and critical and independent thinking.


    • Thanks for the comment. It is critical to recognise that education is much wider than the set of content that can be assessed and measured. However, giving value to other aspects of education shouldn’t mean that we have to assess those things. Assessing social capacities is a minefield of relative variables – is that really a school’s job? In practice it would never be meaningful except in a very specific context. I’d rather we just put formal assessment in perspective and celebrated wider educational processes as having value, assessment-free.


      • I agree Tom. I guess the conundrum is how to make assessment-free educational processes universally valuable. In many schools if it’s not tested or on the curriculum, it’s low profile, risky and expendable. I realise I’m being cynical, I speak as one who is trying to instill more cross-curricula media use and production in a primary school in East London…


  7. Great post, Tom, hopefully consensus will start to form around this position. The Y6 Learning Episodes section provides excellent examples of a great way forward.


    • I’m happy to come across your great post, Tom, thanks to Jon’s late comment.
      I’m intrigued by the way Knowledge/Skills has re-emerged as some sort of for/against dichotomy, but am also worried how it often becomes a litmus test for many other value positions, in much the same way as the phonics debate.
      I have a couple of observations it would be good to have your thoughts on:
      – Knowledge that involves purely right/wrong answers is different from deeper conceptual knowledge which we can more usefully call understanding. (On this point, I echo comments made above, about how ease of testing might define what gets counted as knowledge.) Given this difference, how useful is the simple term ‘Knowledge’? As Sue says, ‘understanding’ works better.
      – In early years education, some commentators who might usually argue the importance of knowledge over skills are equally strident in arguing for an almost exclusive focus on phonemic ‘skills’ over the importance of meaning and understanding (i.e. a wider knowledge)


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