Knowledge and skills: Explicit; sequenced and, ultimately, interwoven.

It has been fascinating engaging in the debate around knowledge and skills over the last few years; I’ve made various attempts to make sense of it.  Here are some related posts:

Some knowledge-skills interplay

The progressive-traditional pedagogy tree

Drills, skills and being match fit. 

I’m a natural third-way person, uncomfortable with polarised positions.  I often find that people are closer in their views when you explore the detail of what they actually do in lessons.  An advocate of a competency -based curriculum might concede that ‘of course facts matter; of course our projects are rich with knowledge’; an advocate of a knowledge-driven curriculum might acknowledge that, ‘of course we believe in a holistic education; the learning of facts is not merely and end in itself’.

However, I’m increasingly convinced that, once the straw-men caricatures are cast aside, there’s more to this than a dismissable false dichotomy.  Even where everyone accepts that children must develop both a strong knowledge base and a wider set of skills and personal attributes, there are significant  differences in orientation.  I’ve met lots of people who are quite definitely opposed to the idea of rote-learning and testing and who are still uncomfortable with the idea of a didactic teacher.

Without doubt, I have moved along the axis towards a more definite knowledge-driven orientation over the last few years.  Looking back at some of the posts I wrote when I was at KEGS, I find that I was much more inclined to promote what Tom Bennett might call ‘groovy teaching’.  In a context where most students had stacks of prior knowledge, it was possible to play around with lesson structures and design all kinds of activities to explore various learning modes.  My exploration of co-construction was one of several of these things.  I was always talking about lifting lids, letting students off the leash and so on.  This post using a skate-boarding lessons analogy is typical of that.

However,  based on recent teaching experiences and all the reading I’ve done all the reading I’ve done and visits I’ve made to various schools, taking account of some of the evidence and reasoning emanating from the field of psychology and education research,  I’m now much less equivocal.  It seems pretty clear to me that the way our brains work has definite implications for the way learning activities should be designed and sequenced – and this is especially critical where students have low prior attainment.   I find the tree analogy continues to work, albeit that the case for ensuring students have a strong structure of foundational knowledge seems stronger than ever.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 15.44.35

I still believe that the early years of play-based learning are vital and that, when children have negative experiences early in life, this holds them back.  As children get older there continues to be a need to consider the learning environment and culture that permeates a classroom so that students participate in the learning process.  This can be engineered through habit-forming routines alongside a healthy diet of awe and wonder. And for sure, the more students learn, the more engaged they become.  It’s that way round.

However – crucially – you can’t grow tall by missing out the structural element of the process. We can’t go from the roots to the canopy without a strong structural system to hang everything on.  Everything I’ve read about learning confirms this sense that knowledge accumulates, building on prior learning with retrieval improving with practice; with higher level skills building on a secure knowledge base within specific domains; with creativity in various domains being informed by a rich knowledge base.  There are no short-cuts.    Of course, some knowledge can be gained experientially or informally – such as with jamming on a guitar instead of having lessons (my knowledge of guitar chords is all about shapes and sounds; I don’t know much about notes and keys; I’ve never had a lesson – but I can play and compose.) But this kind of physical learning doesn’t apply to a lot of important concept-based curriculum areas. The knowledge has to be taught – especially if you want children to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants. 

With the goal of creating knowledgeable learners who can critically evaluate and synthesise information, pursue their own learning path at a high level and be creative, the starting point is with knowledge.  The move towards making knowledge explicit, teaching with memory and recall in mind and, only when ready, seeking to build further, makes perfect sense to me. It’s so annoying to hear people talk about how they ‘teach for understanding, not just regurgitating in exams’ as if having a memory packed with knowledge is not only compatible with deep understanding but is actually a precursor to it.

Recent discussions about GCSE exams about GCSE exams has reinforced this.  The slides above have featured in recent posts. You can’t reach the higher levels of problem solving without first getting the basic facts straight  – in any subject. This has implications for the nature of assessment too.   Any talk of focusing on problem solving instead of knowing the key facts is totally misguided.

Again, it’s not simply a case of just teaching facts in some reductionist view of what being knowledge driven might mean. In my view there is always a balance:

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 16.05.40

The percentages are my stab in the dark. You’ll have your own view. Can we wrap up good quality knowledge acquisition within projects and more collaborative class structures? I’m sure we can at a certain level but increasingly I think this has to come later on with older students once they’ve got a decent knowledge base to work with.  Co-construction of Harkness-method group work rely on a high level of prior knowledge and embedded habits of learning.  If you use those techniques too soon, you risk simply allowing students to wallow in the shallows of their ignorance and confusion, embedding misconceptions even more deeply.  Up to a certain point, it’s way better to just teach; to just tell ’em – or however you want to characterise sound teacher-led instruction. Mode A.

All of this chimes with the ideas in Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21st C.  We’re not talking about knowledge instead of anything; it’s all inter-related, interwoven with the dialectic of discussion, experience and debate the explicit teaching of the skills and experience of rhetoric. The three arts cohabit the learning space – they’re not part of a strict sequence – but starting with an emphasis on the grammar of any discipline does actually make good sense quite a lot of the time.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 16.01.43

My hope is that we move the debate on beyond the polarised straw-man either-or debate towards a more interesting debate about sequencing and appropriateness for context, given the prior knowledge of the learners at any given point.  It’s knowledge and skills developed in the right order for any given discipline. We should still be clear about the evidence – there are no shortcuts to deep knowledge.  Teaching can be hard but instead of seeking to avoid the difficulty looking for a bypass straight to creativity, we should focus more on finding ways to do it better. That’s our best hope for most students.

END Note:  This Varkey Foundation debate is interesting.  Follow the links. Daisy and Nick (let’s be informal) win easily.  They don’t fall for the straw-man case put by the other side.  The summing up is hard to argue with .


  1. […]   It has been fascinating engaging in the debate around knowledge and skills over the last few years; I’ve made various attempts to make sense of it.  Here are some related posts: Some knowledge-skills interplay The progressive-traditional pedagogy tree Drills, skills and being match fit.  I’m a natural third-way person, uncomfortable with polarised positions.  I … Continue reading → […]


  2. Thanks for this all Tom. Like you I like to find elegant solutions to problems. Which is the appeal of Martin’s approach in the Trivium. I’ve moved on from the 2012 debate which pre-empted the first Research Ed Conference. Then I was advocating a Curate’s Egg solution. I agree that knowledge is important my only concern is who controls it and the NC Review of History was a prime example of too much political interference. On the other hand skills require a base from which to flourish as you rightly say. Employers also don’t easily agree on which skills are required for what, but again government should not be dictating on this. Finally, young people need the confidence to make their own judgements on this and not be left blindly by their seniors. Who said it would be easy!


  3. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the article! Would you apply these principles (of building a knowledge base first and so forth) also to the learning in the apprentice training ? I‘m in the field of apprenticeship education of nurses. They come to our school tow days a week to learn their domain specific stuff and the rest oft the week they are in a hospital or so. The trend in Germany is to organise every learning at school in learning situations, completely skill based. Our school is on the verge to make a new curriculum to implement this stuff with rigor….I‘m so confused know…
    All the best


Leave a 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