Friday, 12 July 2013

Skills vs knowledge

There seems to be a debate about skills vs knowledge. I don't really want to enter that debate, but it seems that I cannot avoid it.

It is even part of the discussion around the aims of the new national curriculum, with a lot of those responding to the consultation asking for an increased focus on skills in the aims.

Where do I stand? Firmly in the middle. It may well be that it is through indoctrination as much as anything else. But when I reflect, I believe that a balance always has to be struck.

If you want to see my conclusion skip to the bottom. My reasoning is in the middle.

When considering knowledge over skills:

It is not easy to assess all types of skills. Students will be measured and assessed by public examinations for the foreseeable future. I witnessed a debate about this recently, while a good proportion of the room thought they would like to see more teacher assessment in class they also all agreed it is impractical while we have the current accountability system. Can we write an exam that assesses these skills that is also sufficiently different year on year? That is hard. For some skills (collaboration) extremely difficult. So in science we have to teach 'facts' that will make up the majority of the assessment. Writing exams that are sufficiently original that test facts is also not easy. But it is possible.

Also, I have a responsibility to help produce the scientists of the future. The universities are not going to be happy with me and my science teacher colleagues if I deliver students who can read a thermometer, draw a line graph, work in a team and speak in public, but don't know that energy is conserved or Newton's Laws of Motion.

There is much agreement in the science education community that we should teach key ideas, but not what those key ideas are. This was a quote from Robin Millar at the ASE summer conference. I think that it backs up the assertion that knowledge is a key component in the science curriculum.

The biggest indication to the volume of knowledge that science teachers teach must be in key stage 4. The science national curriculum is worth one GCSE and to go on to study further science, you need to have covered at least two GCSEs worth of content. Other subjects (not even English, which is also worth two GCSEs) gets the same amount of curriculum time at GCSE.

A last comment on knowledge: I was asked by a PE teacher if it would be possible to teach the level 6 year 7 students in a group with the level 6 year 8 and 9 students. My instant reaction was 'no'. But why? Knowledge and exposure to topics. Year 7 go though foundation topics on cells, particles, chemical reactions, energy and forces (amongst other things) and the knowledge they acquire then is important to understanding the other topics.

In summary, I have to teach knowledge, and I do teach knowledge. I would never dream of not teaching knowledge.

What about skills?

Science has its own set of specific skills, a way of thinking if you like, that it takes to be a scientist. At least this is what I believe. If not STEM graduates would not be in such demand by other areas and careers. Would it be perceived as hard if it were easy for all to access it? Both logic and creativity is required for science.

I believe that the skills I teach when nudging my students towards being scientists are transferable skills. For example, looking at evidence and drawing conclusions or more importantly the skills needed for inquiry. Whether I teach them in a way that means they are transferable is up for debate, but the intention is there.

I am convinced of the importance of teaching inquiry skills. Human endeavour is defined by inquiry. Striking stones together to make fire, redesigning the vacuum cleaner, calculating g all require the skills related to inquiry. Questioning, trailing, looking at a problem from different angles, analysing, making connections, judging relevance, negotiating.

When the PLTS were revealed to me, I was not unhappy. It did not present a great change in my practice. Constructivist teaching of science already expected and practised many of the skills outlined.

(The independent enquirer skills and creative workers are ones that are needed to do well when it comes to scientific investigations. Team working skills are necessary for carrying out practicals as equipment means that students will often have to work in teams.)

The longer I teach core science, the more I appreciate its value. Core Science is (was) part of the curriculum because we want to give students the knowledge AND skills to be scientifically literate in the 21C. We live in a technologically progressive world and without the skill of being able to analyse media reports or advertising claims about science and technology they may be fooled. I wouldn't describe being scientifically literate as 'knowledge', it is more of a skill, a skill linked to inquiry (asking questions). Although, I would not deny that an underpinning knowledge of ideas such as cells, diffusion, energy, etc is vital to grasping the concepts and making choices also.

I teach skills, I will continue to teach skills and I feel it my duty to teach skills. I do it in the context of the students experiencing real science and gaining knowledge first hand in the way that these discoveries were originally made. (Maybe not that authentically).


At the top of this blog post I wrote that it is not easy to assess skills. What the exam boards write in specifications has to be assessed at least once in the life of the specification: every statement has to be examinable. However, the 2011 science specifications are striving to assess skills.

At GCSE you can pass the exam with only knowledge. 25% of the knowledge if you use my exam board. Although this is becoming less. However, you can also access some GCSE questions with a few skills and little knowledge.

But at A-level you cannot. I can pump you full of all the equations of motion you can take, but if you do not have the skills you will mostly likely fail, or at most expect a D grade. In fact you need a certain level of skills to access the knowledge in the A-level science specifications in the first place.

What skills are they? Firstly you have to be able to read and decode the question. Ask questions about the question if you like. Then you have to be able to relate it to an area of physics, (easier because you can work back to the topics being examined by that paper). Then you need to be able to make an abstract visualisation of what you are doing. Finally you have to apply the laws of physics, which may mean manipulating mathematical equations, it may mean structuring your thoughts and ideas logically.

Example GCSE questions:

Example A-level question:

This type of question is why I agree with the idea and construct of SOLO taxonomy. What are the physics ideas needed, how do they link, how do they apply to this circumstance.

However, as a teacher I not only have a duty to my students to support them in passing an exam, but also to my country in educating young people with the skills necessary to survive in a technologically advanced society. The 21C does change how we approach school education, for example no longer can someone open up a car engine or radio and see how it works.

As a science teacher I feel that teaching knowledge and skills are equally important. I teach skills in the context of the knowledge. The two are inextricably linked.

*Hopefully I have not horribly contradicted myself too many times.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Helen. Thanks for the above. Have you ever tried to pick apart a skill? Choose one like decode the question. Is it not any more than a set of pieces of knowledge? It does include the ability to recognise patterns. For example, that question is a law of motion one etc. Are skills not just knowledge packaged in a particular way? What do you think?

    1. If you look at the dictionary definition of knowledge then you find that knowledge is information and skills gained through education and experience. So if those were used skills are indeed a subset of knowledge.

      However, I am not sure that this is the definition being used by the education community, not just in the 'blogosphere' as the comments in the national curriculum review also pointed out that 'skills' were missing from the aims and knowledge wasn't sufficient. The definition being used is knowledge as information and facts.