Teaching knowledge is teaching skill


We can call everything stored in our long-term memories knowledge. All knowledge is biological – stored in the organic substance of our brains – and everything stored biologically is knowledge. If you call some of the stuff that occupies our minds anything other than knowledge then you have to explain how it would be stored. This is hard to do without getting into debates about ‘ether’ or some other insubstantial stuff. Occam’s razor assures us that pursuing such a line of reasoning is both unnecessary and likely to be counter-productive.

But then, what of the common sense observation that knowledge and understanding are different? That wisdom is distinct from skill? Surely it makes sense to create separate categories for each of these things that I’m grouping together as knowledge? Well yes, of course it does. I can group Cheddar, Mozzarella and Roquefort together as cheese but they each look and taste distinctively different. There are times when it makes sense to specify and times when it makes sense to group together. So, we can accept that factual knowledge, skill, wisdom and anything else you might care to speculate about are – at the same time – all knowledge and all different.

But what’s the point? Why I am so keen to group all these disparate entities together? There are two broad reasons:

  1. If all these things are knowledge then they all have a place within a knowledge-rich curriculum. Claiming that a knowledge-rich curriculum is an attempt to just teach factual knowledge is absurd. I’m not even sure how that would be possible.
  2. Even if teaching different categories of knowledge separately is possible, it’s not desirable.

Let’s consider those abstract propositions by considering a practical example. Let’s say I want to teach a class of Year 8 students to write an essay about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. What would I need to include? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  1. Knowledge of the play
  2. Knowledge of the play’s context
  3. Knowledge of literary techniques
  4. Knowledge of vocabulary in the play
  5. Knowledge of structure and syntax
  6. Knowledge of critical style
  7. Knowledge of how to select and present evidence
  8. Knowledge of how to pursue a line of argument

I’m sure you can think of other items to add to this list. Other types of knowledge may operate on the items in this list: what happened last time a student tried to write an essay; how they feel about the play, Shakespeare, literature, school. And so on. While I ought to allow for these types of knowledge I probably don’t want to teach them.

One approach to my list would be to group the first five items together and teach them differently to the last three. This, I think, happens a lot. Children learn bits and bobs about the subject they are to write about and then they asked to practice writing about them. This is because we see the first five items as factual knowledge and the last three as elements of the skill of writing. What happens when you try to teach skill separately? Cargo cult writing.

Consider this task and response:

The student knows something about the play and they know something about how to write an essay, but the two are not well-integrated. Students get better at what they practise, but what they’re practising is, often, not very good. Therefore they get better at writing cargo cult essays. This is, I think, the consequence of prioritising the teaching of skill.

If instead we integrated factual knowledge from the first 5 items with procedural knowledge from the last 3, we might end up with something different. Here’s one, fairly narrow example of how that sort of practice might work:

By integrating factual knowledge with procedural knowledge we encourage children to write something a little more like this:

My point is this: despite there being different kinds of knowledge, it makes little sense to teach them in isolation. This will, I believe, apply to other domains of knowledge as much as it does to English literature. If our aim is for students to master as much the domains we teach as is reasonable and possible, then we should aim to teach knowledge in its broadest and most expansive sense. This gets to the heart of what a knowledge-rich curriculum should be.

Interesting essay samples and examples on:

The trouble with troublesome knowledge

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