What does it mean to have a good education? Does it mean you have a store of useful information or a set of flexible skills that will help you manage change and adapt to an ever-changing world? While there has been much debate recently about the importance of knowledge and skills, if truth be told, a good education should provide both.
In 2014, the government released the new national curriculum for schools in England. While developing the curriculum, education secretary Michael Gove made no secret that he was a fan of the work of E. D. Hirsch and was clear that the new curriculum would be influenced by his work. If you’re not familiar with the Core Knowledge® work of Hirsch, it is most definitely worth looking into and makes an interesting read.
The English national curriculum is a programme in the spirit of Hirsch. Subject content is sequenced so that children learn in a structured and comprehensive manner, and there is less mention of skills than in the previous national curriculum. The subject of history, for example, very clearly outlines the knowledge children need to know by the end of each Key Stage.
Although skills are not as prevalent in the current national curriculum as perhaps they were previously, many schools still follow a skills-based curriculum. When we talk about skills, it is important to be clear on the different types, as ‘transferable’, ‘subject-specific’, ‘cross-curricular’ and ‘age-related’ are all common phrases used to describe a skills-based approach.
Why both matter
In a fast-changing world, a good curriculum needs to teach the right knowledge and skills to address the challenges children will face in the future. With an increasingly rapid rate of economic and social change, schools are in the unusual position of needing to prepare children for jobs that may not yet exist. In modern society, information is available at the click of a button. To acquire this information as knowledge and then be able to use and apply it, you have to possess a wide variety of skills.
Knowledge and skills are intertwined – being able to effectively use knowledge arguably matters more than just the acquisition of it, which is why skills are equally important. Research indicates that children learn more effectively and remember more when they can use skills to access, process and express their knowledge. Skills-based learning creates classroom environments where independence, thinking skills, collaboration and active learning are developed at the same time as knowledge is acquired.
An extreme swing to one approach rather than the other leaves a significant gap in children’s learning which is detrimental.
If you think about learning something new, such as riding a bike, there are so many elements involved. At first, you might learn what the parts of the bike do: the handlebars, the pedals and the brakes. To develop the skill of riding a bike, you need to learn how to use this knowledge of what the parts do to make it move smoothly and safely. You may do this instinctively, with little knowledge, and demonstrate the skill of riding quickly. Alternatively, you may be less instinctive, and slowly begin to fit together and apply the knowledge of how each part works together as a whole, developing the skill of riding through that knowledge base. Instinctive or not, the more you practice the skill, the better you become.
Getting the balance right
So, should education be about getting children to know more facts? Or should it be about encouraging them to try things out and solve problems? Knowledge or skills?
As usual, the answer lies in the middle ground. Both knowledge and skills have a purpose, and the best curricula ensure the right balance of both. Knowledge and skills are inseparable – you really can't have one without the other. The trick is to design learning experiences that help children acquire the knowledge they need and then give them opportunities to apply this knowledge in new and interesting ways.
Cornerstones – A knowledge and skills-based curriculum
If you want a curriculum that has the right balance between skills and knowledge, click here to find out more about the Cornerstones Curriculum. Free samples of our Imaginative Learning Projects are also available here.