The knowledge verses skills debate – Strictly speaking

The skills gap
Although it is estimated that by 2030 there will be more people than jobs for those with lower skills, research conducted by the Learning and Work Institute estimated that England faces a deficit in higher level skills of around 2.5 million people, this is why we have a skills gap.

It’s not that we don’t have enough people it’s that we don’t have enough people with the right skills. It’s an education problem not a resource one…..

The solution is of course easy, train more people, but its skills we need not knowledge, right?

What are skills
A skill is the knowledge and ability that enables us to do something well. There are many definitions of skills but I like this one because it highlights the importance knowledge plays. But although knowledge is valuable, on its own it has limitations. For example, knowing the steps to the Argentinian Tango doesn’t mean you will be able to dance it. Knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical. There is arguably no better place to see how skills are learned than Strictly, the BBC’s hugely successful dance show. Celebrities with differing abilities are given a dance that they need to perform each week, the process they go through is however always the same, and involves practice, practice and more practice.

What is knowledge
Most people will assume that knowledge relates to something written in a text book, be it words, facts, dates, numbers etc, and they would be right. To be precise this type of knowledge is called explicit or declarative knowledge. In addition, you will be aware that you “know it”, which on the face of it might sound strange but some types of knowledge (implicit and tacit) are unconscious, that is you have the knowledge but don’t know that you do, for example, “I can hit a golf ball straight down the fairway without thinking, but don’t ask me to explain how I do it because I have no idea, I guess I’m just naturally talented”. One final point, for knowledge to be understood it should be applied in a specific context or illustrated by way of example, which lifts the words from the page, often putting the learner in a more practical environment where they can “see” what they need to learn.

The Knowledge V Skills debate
Often knowledge and skills are put into conflict, with some promoting knowledge as being the more important. The current national curriculum in England as set out by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove requires that pupils should be taught a robust “core knowledge” of facts and information.

“Our new curriculum affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition”.
Michael Gove

Whilst others promote the value of skills over knowledge, suggesting that technology provides knowledge for free.

“The world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know.”
Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy at the OECD

But like so many things this type of dichotomy is not helpful, with evidence on both sides attesting to the importance of each. The truth is you need both, you can’t learn skills without knowledge and although knowing something has value, it’s what you can do that is most highly prized.

How do you learn skills?
To learn a skill, you first need knowledge, for example here is some of the knowledge required to help dance the Argentinian Tango.

Every dance has its own unique music, and you can’t master it without developing a feel for the music. Tango is a walking dance, meaning that all the steps are based on walking. When you start learning, you must first master some basic movements. Beginners usually start with 8-Count Basic or simply Tango Basic. The rhythm is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

We can then follow what is called the four-step approach to learning skills:
One – Demonstrate the skill with little or no explanation (demonstration)
Two – Repeat with an explanation whilst encouraging questions (deconstruction)
Three – Repeat again with the learner explaining what is happening and being challenged (formulation)
Four – Learner has a go themselves with support and coaching (performance)

Skills are developed through continual practice and repetition, learning by trial and error, asking questions whilst receiving advice to improve performance. An analogy or metaphor can sometime help e.g. Finding your balance is about feeling stable like a ship with an anchor.

Transferable skills are not that transferable
The ultimate goal of those that promote skills development is that once learned they can be taken with you from job to job, they are in effect transferable. However, research suggests that this is not the case. In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools. The experiment looked at the benefits of teaching chess as a means of developing generic skills, in this instance mathematical ability. It concluded, that there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those who had the regular chess class and the control group. Playing chess, does not make you better at maths, on the whole it only improves your ability to play better chess.
This supports the argument that skills are domain specific and that critical thinking learned whilst studying medicine does not necessarily help you become a better critical thinker in other areas. One reason for this may be that to become a good critical thinker you need large amounts of knowledge on which to practice. Which brings us full circle, skills need knowledge and knowledge becomes more valuable when applied in the form of a skill.

Strictly foot note – there is an argument that the celebrities on Strictly are only skilled in one dance at a time, and what is learned from one dance does not transfer easily to another.

 

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