Knowledge and skills across the primary curriculum


01st December 2017

Knowledge and skills across the primary curriculum

What does it mean to have a good education? Does it mean you have a store of useful knowledge or a set of flexible skills that will help you manage change and adapt to an ever-changing world? Is there even a distinction between knowledge and skills?

Knowledge and skills across the primary curriculum


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 it. 

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. Recently, the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum approach is becoming increasingly popular. Read our blog about knowledge-rich curriculum projects.


Although skills are not as prevalent in the current national curriculum as 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.

But aren’t skills and knowledge the same thing?

There’s a theory (and there are many around this topic!) that skills are another form of knowledge, and that you can’t gain a skill without knowing something first. For example, to ride a bike, you need to know that a bike moves forwards, that you need to hold onto the handlebars, pedal with your feet and so on. You could have all of this knowledge and not gain the skill, but not the other way around. The skill, therefore, becomes the application of knowledge and it’s often referred to as ‘implicit’ or procedural knowledge


Declarative and procedural knowledge

In our Knowledge-rich project (KRPs), we make this distinction between skills as procedural knowledge and the conceptual, descriptive or propositional type of knowledge known as declarative knowledge. We identify these two knowledge types in each lesson along with a learning intention. 

As an aside, when you look into the definitions of knowledge, some sources say there are up to thirteen different types! You might hear declarative knowledge being referred to as ‘propositional’ or the terms ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge being used instead. When developing our knowledge and skills framework we chose to stick to well known primary terminology:

Learning intentions which are the skills with implied knowledge we want children to be able to do and

Knowledge (declarative or specific) which is the factual content to support learning and more than cover the requirements of the national curriculum. 

A balanced approach

Knowledge and skills are therefore intertwined. They are also mutually beneficial. Research indicates that children learn more effectively and remember more when they can access, process and express their knowledge. Likewise, when children develop reading skills, they build a wider knowledge base. 

So a curriculum that values both skills (procedural knowledge) and declarative knowledge is the goal. An extreme swing to one approach rather than the other leaves significant gaps in children’s learning.

Practice, practice, practice!

Children need to practise both skills and knowledge in order to remember, automate, refine and ultimately master them. So, for declarative knowledge, this could include regular retrieval and application helping them store and recall it from the long-term memory. For skills, it would include routinely practising and refining the skill. 

Curriculum design

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 we’ve seen, the answer lies in both. Knowledge and skills both 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 that helps children acquire the knowledge they need and then give them opportunities to apply this knowledge in new, meaningful and purposeful ways.

As Ofsted HMCI Amanda Speilman said: 

‘Skills matter and they cannot be separated from knowledge. They are, if you like, the ‘know-how’ in applying the ‘known’. Knowledge and the capacity it provides to apply skills and deepen understanding are, therefore, essential ingredients of successful curriculum design.’

Curriculum Maestro™

Curriculum Maestro is a comprehensive curriculum design, delivery and management system. Created to help primary schools complete and manage complex curriculum tasks with ease and with maximum time-saving efficiency. Pre-populated with fully editable and coherently sequenced early years and primary content, Curriculum Maestro supports the process of curriculum design, that begins with the articulation and creation of curriculum intent to the daily detail of individual teacher timetabling and lesson planning. Linked assessment and the ability to monitor real-time curriculum coverage enables all staff to ensure that plans are taught and assessed. A magnitude of teaching resources, a whole-school skills and knowledge framework and the ability to generate and publish bespoke curriculum projects makes Curriculum Maestro a must-have tool for all primary schools.



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