Skills or knowledge: which is more important?

Skills and knowledge are often viewed as separate ingredients of the learning cake, like eggs and flour, added in different proportions depending on the recipe. But, says Heather Fearn, you need one, then the other becomes possible

I have a question. When planning what to teach do you:

A – Aim to teach mainly knowledge

B – Aim to teach mainly skills

C – Pragmatically mix it up and do a bit of both.

For goodness sake! The answer is obviously C! Surely any sensible teacher needs to ignore this pointless debate and crack on with teaching knowledge, like they always have, and skills such as analysis, evaluation, problem-solving or creativity?

Except that C is the wrong answer. B is also the wrong answer. So is A. I’ll explain. All these views make the mistake of assuming skills and knowledge can be taught separately from each other. They are viewed as separate ingredients of the learning cake, like eggs and flour, added in different proportions depending on the recipe you have in mind. In fact to ask if you are in favour of knowledge or skills is a bit like asking if you favour the cake mixture or the finished cake. You need one, then the other becomes possible.

Skills learnt in one area won’t necessarily transfer to others

There is actually quite a large volume of research suggesting that skills are the product of fluency of knowledge in a specific area: at three, my son was able to judge whether he could believe teasing by his big sisters. This was not because he was an infant prodigy who learnt the “skill” of analysing character motivation but because he knew his sisters so well! He might not manage to use those analytical skills to analyse Hamlet’s motivation until he gains much more relevant background knowledge.

Skills learnt in one area won’t necessarily transfer to other areas: If you love your family it doesn’t mean you’ll love geography, because the word love is being used in two qualitatively different ways. In the same way the words we use to describe skills such as “creativity” or “critical thinking” or “analysis” are not actually describing the same activity in different contexts. The skills of “analysis” that I develop playing chess won’t ever help me to analyse historical sources.

The confusion over the crucial dependence of skills upon knowledge leads to some serious misapprehensions:

– It is a mistake to think you can assess the progress of children using any skills-based ladder.

– It was a mistake that GCSE and A-level assessments were built around the assumption that skills and knowledge can be separately assessed.

– It is a mistake to think a strong focus on reading skills will improve reading comprehension. Inference and reading comprehension generally is almost entirely dependent on the degree of background knowledge about the subject in the text.

– It is a mistake to think you are helping children by cutting the content in textbooks or lessons to focus on skills. Children need to acquire plenty of knowledge about the world to aid general reading comprehension or to exercise skills in the specific topic under study.

– It is a mistake to think that ensuring students’ remember what they learn by testing their factual recall is time wasted on “mere rote learning”. That knowledge is a crucial foundation for the exercise of skills.

– It is a mistake to choose a curriculum in which the knowledge is chosen purely because it is a useful “vehicle” to develop purportedly generic transferable “skills” such as creativity. For all Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity there is no evidence this would make him a creative mathematician!

The education landscape is riddled with flawed practices because of this one simple misapprehension. In the same way that eggs are a necessary precursor to an omelette and the raw cake mixture comes before the chocolate gateau, relevant knowledge is a necessary precursor to the practice of skills.

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  1. Hannes Minkema

    I find the gist of your article totally spot on. Yet the question (actually, the three questions) you asked in the introduction is/are somewhat misleading, because you only focus on teaching. While education is just as well about learning as it is about teaching.

    Thus, you might just as well have asked “When deciding what your students should learn, do you want them to:

    A – Mainly memorize knowledge;

    B – Mainly apply knowledge in relatively new tasks;

    C – Pragmatically mix it up and do a bit of both.

    Here the answer C is not as bad as you make it seem in your example.

    For instance, when we teach children in grade 6 what a ‘square’ is in mathematics, we do not only want them to understand the concept and memorize it, but also to use it in (first simpler, then more complex) mathematical problems, thus demonstrating a certain ‘skill’ in the use of squares. I’m sure you will agree on this.

    The fact is: children will differ in the extent to which they display this capacity to solve mathematical problems using squares. While the concept, and its usage, remains virtually *the same* for every child, their skill will *vary*. And that’s just O.K.

    It would be a sad thing if teachers remembered from your (fine) article that they should now abandon ‘skills’ and focus on ‘knowledge’ instead. Even within a frame of understanding in which knowledge is the base upon which skills are built, teachers do best in developing curricula in which ‘knowledge acquisition’ and consequent ‘skill development’ go hand in hand.

  2. Rupert Higham

    It is simply not possible, or rather, useful, to separate knowledge and skills the way you do. Both are informed responses to the situation at hand – an ability to do the appropriate thing.

    The example you give of your son’s ‘reading’ of his sisters is a case in point. ‘Knowledge of’ his sisters is not principally propositional knowledge, but precisely a hodgepodge of tacit recognition of minute cues, some specific to his sisters, some generic, some both; memories of their past words, seeds and their consequences etc.

    In short, the dichotomy is false and unhelpful. Not all knowledge can be reduced to, or founded upon ‘knowledge that’, which is also ultimately inseparable from ‘knowledge how’. Knowledge of relevantly similar contexts is always part of any appropriate response, and there’s our hodgepodge again.

    The desire to maintain this distinction often seems from the tacit belief in the separation of mind and body, subjective self and objrctive world. The more convincing philosophy, psychology and neuroscience argues otherwise.