The knowledge debate

One of the longer running debates in education is characterised as knowledge v skills. The protagonists are those who wish to emphasise the importance of teaching skills in response to a changing world and those who emphasise the teaching of knowledge as fundamental to learning in any world.

Recent blogs about the Michaela School in London have highlighted the impact on pedagogy of teaching knowledge. Children sit in rows, there is no group work and teachers transmit specific facts and key information. It is claimed that this creates well-informed articulate young people. Further fuel to the debate came with negative reviews of Sir Ken Robinson’s new book. He is famous for challenging an emphasis on over-assessment of knowledge in a narrow curriculum as a reflection of a past Industrial Age. 

The answer (which will annoy both sides) is in finding the right balance between the two. Into the mix I would throw “understanding” so that learning is seen as developing an understanding of knowledge in the context of applying skills. 

To teach effectively, you need to appreciate the overlap between the three concepts. We cannot separate knowledge from the skills of memorisation. These are very important but elusive for some children. If we over-emphasise knowledge at the exclusion of everything else, we are saying that the only valuable skill is memorisation. In such a system, children and young people who struggle to memorise because there are barriers to that skill feel themselves to be failures and lacking in intrinsic value from an early age. Those who argue for a knowledge based curriculum assessed only through examination need to acknowledge and address the experience of the proportion of children who are immediately doomed to fail in such a system. That is why I would promote memorisation through repetition, rhyme and recitation across a broad curriculum but not sit children in rows and ban group work. 

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