Tuesday, 27 January 2015

#BLOGSYNC: Knowledge vs Skills [RE]

Image courtesy of Pixabay

"What do you view as the relative roles of knowledge and skills in education?”

Some may be thinking, this again? While others will never have even considered their view, or approach, on the great "Knowledge vs Skills" debate. 

Tom Bennett hit the nail on the head for me in a recent RE:Online interview:

I want an RE that is less about ‘how do you feel about this?’ and more about ‘what have people thought and why, and what do you think of their beliefs?’ Before we can do the ‘why’, first we have to make sure the ‘what’ is secure. [See <here>]

This is absolutely crucial. I absolutely believe that until you have sound knowledge you can't meaningfully begin to master any skills. Perhaps this is distinct in RE, but I suspect not. I can't have my students passing judgement, analysing or drawing conclusions without sufficient information to make those activities meaningful. 

It is absolutely wrong to undertake endless activity-based lessons (as OFSTED seemed to want at one stage, and SLT in some places still demand). There needs to be considerable input of knowledge and this will not be the 'fun' or 'all singing and dancing' lessons many produce for observations. I've been guilty of this in the past, but there should also be a great joy in a lesson where students successfully absorb and learn significant new knowledge. 

I am forced, painfully, to recall an OFSTED observation on a Year 7 lesson. It was not Outstanding, only Good, because I defined the term 'Messiah' for my students. This was a new topic, and there was no prior knowledge of this concept. None of my students speak Hebrew, however the one piece of advice to have achieved a Grade 1 was to have allowed students to have discussed in pairs and 'work out for themselves' what 'Messiah' meant to them [Read more <here>].

Additionally, when considering this debate while recently marking A-Level essays, it was brutally clear that the best essays were the ones where students have learnt the material, they had knowledge. This allowed them in turn to display understanding in the Part A and then analyse and evaluate in Part B [Edexcel RS]. These skills are impossible for the students who simply haven't learnt the material.

Recently, I have introduced some cognitive psychology to student to help them appreciate the value and importance of learning key information. It really is the fundamental part to everything else. Any meaningful skill is based upon having sound existing knowledge, even the ability 'to Google' needs a sound knowledge base to assess the validity and usefulness of knowledge found.

However, not for one minute am I suggesting that we spend our whole time rote learning. This is not education, this is not how I teach. Yet, I do reject the idea in RE that 'you can't be wrong'; I frequently correct parents on this on open evenings. There are some things that are absolutely wrong, and even a limited amount of knowledge should allow you to reach that conclusion. 

This creates a need for teachers to plan their time carefully. You need to provide sufficient knowledge, but then allow adequate time for young minds to develop the necessary skills. You need a clear vision of what you want your students to achieve... and then work back. If I want my A-Level students to produce a clear conclusion on the usefulness of the Ontological Argument, I need to carefully work back to work out what core knowledge they need in order to reach that conclusion, then unleash their brains on it in a carefully structured way.

Blooms, SOLO and pretty much every other taxonomy of learning suggests that learning (and remembering) knowledge is core to any further progress. Students that have a vast bank of knowledge are often able to develop the necessary skills far quicker and more efficiently; this is no coincidence. Any activities, based on skills, must be deepening and widening knowledge. After all, the oft-quoted Dan Willingham tells us "memory is the residue of thought"; it is easier to remember when we have done some deep thinking about the subject.

Yet, is this really a debate in the first place? Just like 'Science vs Religion', it is perhaps misleading. There can be few, if any teachers, who would for a minute suggest that it needs to be one or the other in the most absolute sense. My lessons feature both: one day you would come in and see me drilling some key words, or dates, or scholars; on another we'd be doing a silent debate, speed dating or cracking on writing an essay! To do one without the other would be absurd; you'd have a pretty poor debate or essay with no knowledge, and there would be little point in simply learning knowledge to no end.

For me, there is a real joy in a well-crafted A-Level philosophy essay. It features clear understanding of the complexities of  the topic, careful analysis of scholars contributions before a confident conclusion showing the evaluative skills of the writer. Knowledge AND skills, totally inseparable in the final piece of work.

Read more on the 'Knowldge vs Skills' blogsync <here> 


  1. I completely agree knowledge and skills should be inseparable. However, I was concerned at Tom's comment regarding virtues and wisdom. Wisdom for one thing has often been seen as a virtue but RE when taught well does challenge students views, beliefs (religious or not) and attitudes and for me encourage them to develop character and virtues by simply considering what they are learning. Is this a bad thing? I realise that RE has been under attack as an academic subject, it's exclusion from EBACC for example and I also know that for many the Learning from Religion side of RE has become increasingly unpopular but I think that this side or RE doesn't just put us on a par with other subjects but head and shoulders above (I have to admit bias on this last comment). Maybe I have read too much into Tom's comments but wondered what others think?

  2. Please keep sharing more posts.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.