Knowledge and skills: getting the balance right across the primary curriculum

Curriculum

06th March 2020

Knowledge and skills: getting the balance right across the primary curriculum

What does it mean to have a good education? Does it mean that you have a store of useful knowledge or a set of flexible skills that will help you to manage change and adapt to a rapidly changing world? Is there a distinction between knowledge and skills? How should primary schools approach skills and knowledge development in their curriculum design?

Knowledge and skills: getting the balance right across the primary curriculum

Knowledge and skills

In 2014, the government released the new national curriculum for schools in England. Whilst developing the curriculum, education secretary Michael Gove made it clear that he admired the work of E. D. Hirsch and emphasised 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 and more mention of knowledge than in the previous national curriculum. Recently, the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum approach is becoming increasingly popular – but there are many primary schools who seek to create a broad and balanced curriculum approach, where skills and knowledge are equally valued.

But aren’t skills and knowledge the same thing?

In some areas of cognitive science, skills are often described as another form of knowledge – procedural knowledge – meaning that you can’t gain or use a skill without knowing something first. For example, to locate the four countries of the UK on a map, you need to know what a map shows, how to use it, the names of the countries you are looking for and so on. The skill of locating the countries on a map, therefore, involves implicit knowledge.

You might also hear the term declarative knowledge, which is explicit knowledge, distinct from procedural knowledge. An example of this knowledge, continuing with the geography example above, is to know that the UK is a union of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. A child could locate the four countries on a map, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the declarative knowledge or understand the union of the countries within the UK.

Both knowledge and skills, therefore, combine to enrich the learning experience.

Terminology

As with many educational topics, the terminology we use can be confusing. Indeed, when you look at the definitions of knowledge, some sources say there are up to thirteen different types. To give schools clarity around knowledge and skills, in the Cornerstones Curriculum we chose to stick to established primary terminology:

Learning intentions are skills with implicit knowledge that we want children to be able to learn

Knowledge is distinct, declarative knowledge, such as facts and information that support the learning intentions

The image below shows how these two objectives appear in a lesson within a Cornerstones Curriculum project on Curriculum Maestro, our online curriculum planning platform.

Learning intention and knowledge

A balanced approach

Knowledge and skills are intertwined. They are also mutually beneficial. Research indicates that children become more proficient learners when they develop metacognitive and cognitive strategies, such as being able to retrieve and connect their knowledge (Muijs, 2020; Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014). Likewise, when children develop the skill of reading, they can access and build a wider knowledge base.  

Therefore, a curriculum that values and finds a balance between both skills and knowledge is the goal. Prioritising one over the other can create significant gaps in children’s learning. In fact, as Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Schools, says, to pitch one approach over the other creates a ‘false dichotomy’. 

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 is ‘both’. Knowledge and skills both have a purpose and the best curricula ensure the right balance between them. They are inseparable and, as Purves says, ‘intimately linked’.   

The trick is to design a curriculum that helps children to acquire the knowledge and skills that they need and then gives them opportunities to practice and apply them over time, in order to master them. For declarative knowledge, this includes regular retrieval and application, helping them to store and recall it from memory. For skills, it includes routinely practising and refining the skill.  An outstanding curriculum is one that is designed with these opportunities and connections in place. 

The Cornerstones approach

At Cornerstones, we take the balanced approach to curriculum design and recognise the importance of both knowledge and skills in equipping children for their lives and future learning. The Cornerstones skills and knowledge framework that underpins all curriculum projects provides clear subject endpoints, giving schools the assurance of national curriculum coverage and progression. 

For those schools wanting to pursue a more knowledge-rich approach, while retaining the right balance with skills and practical experience, we’ll be adding new knowledge-rich projects in due course.  

To find out how Cornerstones can help you cover knowledge and skills in your curriculum, contact us on 03333 20 8000, email us at support@cornerstoneseducation.co.uk or click here to book a free demo.

The Cornerstones Curriculum and Curriculum Maestro allow my leadership team, governors and I to ensure we have a great curriculum with assured coverage and progression.’

David Perkins, Headteacher, Littletown Primary Academy, Honiton

I’ll finish this blog with the words of Ofsted’s HMCI, Amanda Spielman, who perfectly sums up the relationship between skills and knowledge in curriculum design: 

‘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 an online system to help primary schools design, deliver and manage their curriculum with ease. Populated with fully editable and coherently sequenced projects, teaching resources, subject monitoring and assessment tools, Curriculum Maestro is the perfect tool for an outstanding curriculum.  

Curriculum Maestro find out more

References 

Muijs D (2020) Cognition, learning and educational research from Issue 8 of Impact magazine, The Chartered College of Teaching

Brown PC, Roediger III HL and McDaniel MA (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. London: Harvard University Press. 

Spielman A (2018) HMCI commentary: curriculum and the new education inspection framework 

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