Why we *must* teach skills, not knowledge

I’ve been interested in education for a long time.  I’ve been frustrated, and angered, by how much it turned out I wasn’t taught; by how much others knew, coming out of school, that I did not; left to forever feel I’m playing catch-up.  I’ve been similarly frustrated by the attitudes of some towards particular subjects: “History is pointless,” “I can’t do maths,” “What’s the point of learning French, when everyone speaks English anyway!”  And so forth.  I probably said the first and final lines myself at some point (I definitely said the final one when in Year 11, a lot.)

The Scientific Method

I took an optional course at university.  Its title was designed to appeal to scientists, but really it was ‘The philosophy of science.’  Here, for the first time, I learnt something shocking: nothing can be proved by science.  The notion of ‘scientific proof,’ in a strict philosophical sense, was a fallacy.  I’m sure I heard that in adverts all the time though, or at least implied… ‘scientifically proven to work.’  It takes time to reconcile this realisation with the power of scientific inquiry.  I suppose a peripheral understanding might be what leads some at the extremes into unproductive science-denialism, replete with failures to distinguish between a ‘theory’ and a ‘scientific theory.’

 Scientifically proven

That’s right, it’s scientifically proven

Regardless, this is surely an important point, and important to understanding what science really is, and how it really works, and being able to think critically about scientific ideas.  I was angry that it took this long for me to hear about it – 21 years old, in an *optional* module, three years into a four year course.  Unbelievable.

I thought more about this, and what I *had* instead been taught in school.  You know what, knowing Newton’s ‘three laws of motion’ really hasn’t done me much good, has it?  I’ve certainly never needed them, or used them in my life.  You know what I wish I’d been taught, what would be useful?  What science is, how it works, and above all the scientific method; that process of hypothesising, gathering evidence via carefully designed empirical experimentation, disproving or ‘failing to disprove’ the hypothesis, analysis of data, and so forth.  As I looked towards jobs, no-one really cared about my scientific knowledge.  What they cared about was my ability to think critically, analyse data, and be investigative.  Even if I had pursued a scientific career, doubtless the vast, vast majority of all that broad knowledge would have been useless, as I specialised in one area or another.

Teaching Science – Then

I originally intended to teach science.  I knew much about the rich tapestry of the scientific history, including the, again shocking, truth that what we today think of as science is barely 400 years old.  I also knew about the philosophy of science.  I knew none of these for mathematics; to me it was still a relatively stale subject, albeit, I was interested in overcoming the ‘I can’t do maths’ myth.

 Doing science

Doing science.

So how should we teach science?  Well we probably shouldn’t worry too much about all this knowledge for a start – useless it was.  Let’s make sure we teach the transferable skills that come from science.  That’s what all the employers want, and in the end, that’s what everyone and anyone can take from a study of science, and it will forever be of use!

We overestimate their knowledge, and underestimate ours

I had an offer with Teach First.  I spent a year preparing: I read books about mathematics, I consumed over 100 hours of lectures on its history, its philosophy, and other aspects of it that go untaught (Vedic maths anyone?)  I read textbooks on general teaching pedagogy cover to cover.  Then a month before I was due to start, I read an unpublished manuscript sent to me by a friend.

A sixty-A4-page thesis decried the teaching of skills.  What?  I didn’t even think we *were* teaching skills!  This can’t be right, teaching skills is the way forward; I’ve spent years thinking about this!  ‘We should teach knowledge.’  WHAT!  No!  I had every argument I needed for why this was pointless; my own personal experience especially!  The more I read, the more I became convinced this was written by some right-wing nut job.  Under any other circumstance I would have been quite happy to chuck it out after chapter 3, confirmation bias abound, but this came to me recommended by someone I trusted deeply, and for whom had more than enough  respect to reserve my judgement.  I had to ask who wrote it.  I learnt it was written by someone called Daisy Christodoulou.  Never heard of her; apparently she went to Warwick after me.  I was told she was ‘the most intelligent person my friend knew.’  Bold claim.  I was told she was completely left-wing, a liberal.  I was suspicious, but my suspicion had been softened enough to keep reading.

I read Chapter 4.  The position centralised.  Paraphrasing, I took the message now to be more ‘I’m not saying skills are unimportant, but we cannot teach them in the abstract; they depend upon knowledge.’  Chapter 5 was the one that really got me thinking though: “We overestimate their knowledge, and underestimate ours.”  This was filled with barely believable anecdotal examples of what the author’s pupils simply didn’t know… which was a lot; in fact it was so much that I would have otherwise taken for granted that even a child would know!  The chapter also argued that as well-educated adults, we have internalised our own knowledge to a point that it almost invisibly becomes ‘our intellect;’ we draw upon vast bodies of knowledge, accumulated over a significant period of time, to interpret what we see, read and hear, and then to formulate our own ideas, and we do it all almost completely unaware of the process, unaware of how much knowledge we use.

This chapter challenged my thinking up to that point more than anything else I had read; it forced me to question and re-evaluate everything.  I started to focus on the cognitive processes at work whenever I read the news, or involved myself in some casual conversation about educational, political, historical or philosophical ideas.  I started to realise just how much knowledge I really *was* drawing on.  In solving mathematical problems, I started to realise just how much mathematical knowledge I was taking for granted, and how swiftly I could bring it to bear, flicking between possibilities with ease as I searched for a method that might lead to a solution.

Teaching Science – Now

I felt that knowing something about what we mean by ‘scientific proof’ was important.  That hasn’t changed.  I can see it being possible to broach the philosophy of deduction and induction in there as well.

I wanted there to be a clear understanding of what the scientific method was, and just how science works, I guess, as a philosophy of knowledge acquisition.  That hasn’t changed.

What *has* changed is my attitude towards the knowledge content of my school education.  Despite studying for a Master’s in physics, I used to disdain the heavy focus on accumulation of scientific knowledge.  I was wrong; deeply wrong.  I made the same mistake made by many other well-educated people of undervaluing my own education, and how it contributed unknowingly to my intellect.

More than that though, now I understand something of how the interplay between our knowledge forms the basis of our intellect, I can see how important it is that we as a society can guarantee a certain minimum acceptable standard in what every person has a right to know about our scientific body of knowledge, regardless of what they go on to do later in life.  The sharing of this knowledge is not something we ‘do’ to unwilling children who have no interest, or see no relevance of it to their life today.  To borrow from Shakespeare:

 The wing to heaven

The wing to heaven

There is nothing righteous about trapping people in ignorance, and nothing liberal about abdicating societal responsibility for guaranteeing every citizen a body of knowledge.  Such a corpus, being transparent, can be debated and modified openly, together, as a democratic society.

There might yet be things about the science curriculum that I would want to adapt, ways in which I would want to augment the ‘scientific facts’ and ‘scientific theories’ with knowledge of how they came to be, and why people cared; a sense of narrative to scientific endeavour.  What I will never again say, however, is that the scientific knowledge I was taught has been ‘useless,’ simply because I have never or rarely needed to apply it directly to my life.



For the ‘mock lesson’ section of my Teach First interview I was asked to prepare a lesson with the title ‘What types of forces are there?’ and then being directed to the National Curriculum for guidance on what to include, to help me prepare.  The 2007 document quite literally says this about the teaching of forces, in section 3.1a:

“…forces are interactions between objects and can affect their shape and motion.”

Can you imagine the stress of being asked to prepare for an interview on the topic of teaching what kinds of forces there are, and this is all you have to go on?  What if I miss some important forces out?  What exactly is the full spectrum of forces that we cover at school level?  Do I just teach force as a concept?  What about links between types of force, or the four fundamental forces?  Interview aside, how on Earth can we accept this as the reference point for the knowledge we expect to bestow upon future generations!

As a useful comparison, here is the 2007 NC for science compared with the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge Curriculum:

 Hirsch CK Science

That was 7 years ago.  I haven’t looked up the proposed revisions.  Maybe someone can lift my spirits and tell me it’s all better now; if not, something has to change.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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15 Responses to Why we *must* teach skills, not knowledge

  1. Kris, interesting stuff. I can confirm that, as a professional Scientist, the vast majority of the knowledge that I fleetingly knew in Chemistry and Physics, has long since flown, and rarely needs recapturing. But, but, I am in no doubt that learning it, and linking it all together (constructing the knowledge framework that enabled me to remember it all, including a working understanding of the scientific method) is what made me a Scientist. It is also what gives me the confidence to tackle any scientific problem in my professional sphere (and lots outside of it, always aware of my limitations). One of the things it has endowed me with is the ability to ask the key questions (and then seek how to answer them). Facts on their own don’t do this, but knowledge (facts in context) is key to developing the cognitive machinery needed to be a Scientist. And every now and then some long lost scientific tidbit hovers into view, and enough of the knowledge of it returns to allow the key connections to be made…….

  2. Pingback: Why we *must* teach skills, not knowledge | DTtoolkit

  3. Marcus says:

    I think the problem with a ‘knowledge based curriculum’ is not the same problem as everybody else believes it to be, and I feel that my standpoint on this makes me different to everybody else.

    We know that inflexible knowledge is extremely important as it is the first stepping stone on the path to flexible knowledge – how can you recognise that a question requires Pythagoras’ Theorem if you’ve never before encountered Pythagoras’ Theorem?

    We also must accept that the fastest way to get information from an expert to a novice is through the expert passing their knowledge down to the novice.

    What I think is the biggest problem is the assimilation of knowledge. (I hope that is the right sentence.) Once new knowledge is imparted, students must have a chance to play with it, to think about it, to discuss it, to try and fit it into their world views. I feel that going from explaining straight to individual work is a complete waste of time.

    I feel most of the problems are from poorly designed ‘chewing’ time.

    I might be showing more of my hand than I’d like here, but I think that group work is a complete waste of time and individual work doesn’t really allow the correct context for ‘chewing’ upon an idea, however if you use collaborative work correctly (massive distinction from group work) I think that this is probably the best way to embed the knowledge that has been learned.

    Once ‘expert’ level has been reached in a particular topic, surely the enrichment of problem-solving or ‘rich tasks’ should be the next logical step.

    As an aside, almost all schools that I go and see do use the ‘knowledge based curriculum’ – I don’t see much problem solving as a learning tool.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      “What I think is the biggest problem is the assimilation of knowledge. (I hope that is the right sentence.) Once new knowledge is imparted, students must have a chance to play with it, to think about it, to discuss it, to try and fit it into their world views. I feel that going from explaining straight to individual work is a complete waste of time.”

      What makes you say this?

      I don’t see much problem solving as a learning tool.

      In which subjects? And, in which subjects do you think that this is appropriate?

  4. Marcus says:

    Kris, sorry about using this place here, I don’t know where else to put it, I would like to discuss with you many things, however just something that I have been thinking:

    The ‘remarkable’ story of ‘Direct Instruction’ is seriously doing my head in at the moment! It is not ‘remarkable’ in any way apart from the fact that it realises that it is deeply flawed so relies on reteaching topics many times over. It is also really a huge victory for ‘performance’ over ‘learning’ which is what we are trying to avoid, isn’t it? As Bjork has shown that performance is not the same as learning, that performance inhibits learning.

    In fact Bjork tells us the opposite of what Direct Instruction does – Direct Instruction is all about reteach, reteach, reteach but Bjork tells us that study – test, test, test – test is the best strategy for truly learning something. These can’t both be correct, can they?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I’m not sure that’s the correct conceptualisation of DI. There are some sample materials for their maths programme here:


      DI, as I understand it, *is* using the study – test – test – test model. It’s not about repeated explanation from the teacher, it’s about repeated practice/testing on the part of the kids, over a long period of time, which is exactly what Bjork advocates.

      Further, since they use a strand curriculum design – meaning several topics are taught/studied/practised simultaneously – they are arguably introducing interleaving according to Bjork’s definition, and thus one of his ‘desirable difficulties.’

      Its structure does not suggest in any way that it is flawed – quite the converse, the flawed theory would be assuming that *anything* can be simply explained once, and then perfectly recalled forever more! The DI model recognises this, and promotes the building of memory storage strength over time – indeed the only way that storage strength can be built. By contrast, most other curricula designs are not built for this, which is why we get kids ‘learning’ and then immediately forgetting everything, to our enduring frustration.

      Notably, I’m increasingly suspecting that the DI model is *not* very well suited to the teaching of relative ‘experts,’ nor the communication of very complex or ‘higher level’ ideas. I could be wrong, but given that the two most popular DI programmes actually available are both for fairly low level mathematics, and basic reading, it would seem to suggest that this is true.

      • Concerned says:

        These are some of my main worries, introducing a few ideas together surely means that the working memory is overloaded. I thought interleaving was teaching 3 separate topics over 3 lessons then the fourth lesson being one that brings all of the ideas together. I thought the desirable difficulties were in the explaining, for example, showing a method but not explaining it and asking the students to write a set of directions, where they have to think about the method, or the reason why, basically making them think about what I waant them to learn.

  5. dodiscimus says:

    Good to see mention of Direct Instruction in the blogosphere which correctly applies it to the (mainly) reading and basic maths programmes developed by Engelmann and his collaborators rather than as a catch-all term for a range of traditional teaching approaches. The high effect sizes are for those specific programmes and cannot be applied to anything else.
    The KS4 Science NC is not yet published (hopefully we – and more importantly the exam boards – will get it at least a few weeks before we have to start teaching it) but the new KS3 NC is definitely more specific than the 2007 one. Having said that, the 2007 NC was clearly just an outline rather than any attempt to suggest that the entirety of KS4 chemistry should be some vague understanding about what chemical reactions are and why they happen. The Level Descriptors contained a lot more specific detail, and the National Strategies more again, but actually the driver of any KS4 SoW was, and always will be, knowledge of the GCSE assessment requirements (no-one actually writes their KS4 SoW from the NC rather than the GCSE spec, do they?). Someone I consider a wise blogger (Tom Sherrington? Leading Learner? maybe) made the point a while ago that it should always be the assessment that drives the curriculum design. I think this is very important in science – what kind of questions about chemical reactions do we want pupils to be able to answer, and from that we work out what they need to know.
    Can I suggest you have a look at the new KS3 Science NC and see what you think? This is much closer to Hirsch (unsurprisingly given Gove’s beliefs about education) but I still think you can pick out plenty of statements where the immediate thought is “how detailed should this be?” I can take a pretty good guess but only because I know where GCSE is and have been teaching for 15 years. The GCSE specs are the same – you have to look at the past papers to know what detail to aim for. So I suppose, and perhaps working backwards from the assessment, the question is “how feasible is it to write down exactly what pupils should know”?
    Well, I suspect it is possible to do this well, but it certainly isn’t easy. The first draft of the KS3 Science NC was a total mess, and the final version still has a few issues (e.g. “differences in resistance between conducting and insulating components (quantitative)”???). Give the right group of people enough time to draft, consult, and re-draft several times, and maybe they could nail it. At the current pace of change, no way!

    By the way, take a look at that Hirsch slide you have up. The first statement is fine. Every other statement about bonding is flawed – most blatantly, there is no such thing as a NaCl molecule!

  6. Richard Kelleher says:

    Regarding ED Hirsch Core Knowledge description: NACl is definitely not a molecule. And who would ever create a PPT slide describing chemistry without putting subscripts on formulae.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Well herein lies the beauty of such a prescriptive curriculum! I didn’t realise myself that NaCl wasn’t a valid molecule, and so had to look it up to understand how and why it wasn’t. While I don’t know if that was a transcription error to the PPT, or it’s actually in the original curriculum, at least it being written out clearly means that we can have a discussion about it, and could modify the curriculum content if it were inaccurate. As it stands, other teachers might well be teaching that it’s a molecule and have nothing to guide them knowing otherwise!

  7. Pingback: 195 Countries – What’s the point? – Part 1 | …to the real.

  8. Pingback: Science: What is its knowledge? | …to the real.

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