Moving on the Knowledge v Skills debate

16th January 2014

The great Knowledge v Skills debate rages on with no sign of it running out of energy: Every week there is a new blog redefining or reiterating the arguments from one side or the other.

From my own standpoint, when I first started reading education blogs about a year ago, I found the heat of the argument confusing. Why was the debate so contentious? Why was everyone so agitated? For me, both knowledge and skills are important – two sides of the same coin – and I found it a very odd idea they could be separated or one given priority over the other.

Nevertheless, when I wrote comments or tweets expressing this opinion, I was told the dichotomy is very real and causing untold harm to the education of students all over the country and I should be worried. So, I was, and I’ve tried to keep my mind open as much as I can, and I’ve diligently read every blog I’ve seen on the subject: trying to make sense of why so many bloggers find it important to keep fighting the same battles, over and over again.

In the process my views have not changed much – I’m still of the opinion both knowledge and skills are important and need to be taught and developed throughout education from nursery to university. And that learning of all kinds is best developed in meaningful and engaging (knowledge-rich) contexts – but I have begun to understand a little more of the reasons why each side is so passionate about their side of the argument and why they refuse to concede.

A change of mind

Recently I read a blog on the subject by Chris Hildrew, which I thought perfectly captured why the subject is so shrouded in antipathy and confusion. Chris, a self-confessed former ‘skill-phile’ wrote about how he has recently converted to the other side of the dichotomy as a born-again ‘knowledg-lyte’.

No blind follower of fashion, Chris has been careful to justify his change of mind by using the kind of precise language that has been notably absent from the KvS debate: “I have had a slow epiphany (if such a thing it possible). I have realised that skills are a type of knowledge – that in teaching skills we are teaching “know-how”.

Chris was writing in response to David Didau: “Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.”

I was interested that David and Chris were making such a clear distinction and this started me thinking. Perhaps one of the main reasons why the debate is so polarized and difficult to resolve is because of a lack of clarity in meaning. In my experience, the precise use and meaning of words is all important when arguing over complex ideas. Many heated disagreements are generated because people are either arguing over the same thing, but calling it a different name, or arguing over different things, and calling them the same name. Could this be true of the KvS debate? Was the renaming of skills as procedural knowledge a real difference or just a rebrand? And what is ‘procedural knowledge’? If we have found it so difficult to pin down what skills are and how they can be taught, why should it be different if we start calling them procedural knowledge? Or perhaps procedural knowledge is something completely different to skills and this is the start of a significantly new direction?

Some nuance

Whatever the answers, it seemed to me things could be made much clearer than they are.

In philosophy, Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), makes a clear distinction between ‘know that’ – termed propositional (or declarative) knowledge – and ‘know how’ – procedural (or imperative) knowledge.

Propositional knowledge “encompasses knowledge about a wide range of matters: scientific knowledge, geographical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and knowledge about any field of study whatever.” [Ref.]

Procedural knowledge “is knowledge exercised in the performance of some task. The procedural knowledge we use to solve problems differs from the propositional knowledge we possesses about problem solving because this knowledge is formed by doing. [ref.]

After reading this, it seems to me we should be very careful, when we are talking about knowledge, to make the distinction between Propositional and Procedural knowledge, since they are two very different things. In just about all the KvS arguments I read in blogs, knowledge is considered a single easily understandable term, synonymous with information or facts, which everyone is assumed to understand and agree with. However, knowledge-as-truth is very far from being an uncontested term and knowledge-as-process can be divided into at least two very different sub-divisions.

A new direction

So, where does this leave us?

In one sense the argument has become more complicated with the addition of several new technical terms. We are no longer talking of a simple battle between knowledge and skills. We are now talking about a redefinition of all skills as procedural knowledge, in which case is the new battle between propositional and procedural knowledge? Or, are we saying procedural knowledge is different from what we call ‘skills’ and the new battle is between teaching propositional + procedural knowledge in opposition to teaching skills?

As clear as mud!

To my mind, anything that gives more precision to the language is helpful and moves the argument on. Therefore, I propose we embrace the more technical terms and develop a new line of inquiry: what do we mean by Procedural knowledge? Is it the same as skills? And, how do we teach it/develop it in our classrooms?

This seems to me a much more productive field of debate.

Asking questions

To start with, I would like to know a lot more about Procedural knowledge. What it means technically and how it develops in human beings. I have a friend, Geoff James, who I talk to about these things. He lives in Thailand (so we talk via skype), but until recently he was a teacher working for the children’s psychology services. Geoff is a trained scientist and studied epistemology and ontology (the philosophy of being) while researching his PhD, so he’s good person to ask about subjects like this.

Last week in a blog on epistemology, he wrote: “unlike information, [Procedural] knowledge isn’t stored in the brain somehow as relatively fixed material, it’s created in a specific situation. It’s never recreated in the same way again or used in the same way to produce action.” [Ref.] This puzzled me when I first read it, so I’m using this blog to ask him what he meant by it.

Geoff’s Reply:

I’ve just written two pieces which might help a bit here ( ).

I’m doing a lot a reading at the moment, including the comments on your own piece. It seems to me there’s general confusion about the language relating to this question. I’m interested in working towards shared understanding as a starting point. This isn’t n exercise in navel gazing or trying to get famous by offending some people and attracting others. Words have meaning and if we’re going to communicate meaningfully I think it worth putting some effort into this phase of the work. Once we’ve got that…….

The single term ‘knowledge’ is used to describe many different things. The confusion this causes is evident when people are doing their level best to be understood and use ‘knowledge’ to mean;

1) a discrete bit of information – that the elements are arranged in logical order in the periodic table created by Mendeleev

2) discrete bits of information that can be communicated – the names and position of the elements in the first three columns of the periodic table

3) a skilled performance which is produced automatically and repeatedly and can produce communication about itself – writing down in correct order the names of the elements in the first three columns of the periodic table

4) a skill of performance which is produced within a particular context, is unique, is unrepeatable and uncommunicable – singing Tom Lehrer’s song ‘The Elements’ in an end of term concert.

In the language of cognitive psychology (not my first scientific language, I’m a biologist) 1 and 2 are called Declarative Knowledge. 3 and 4 are called Procedural Knowledge. Declaritive Knowledge is also known as Propositional and Descriptive Knowledge. I and 2 relate to discrete items of information, stored in memory and available for recall in the same form as hey went in. For example, I can tell you that free, equal, numerous, spiral, hypogynous (FENSH) is the characteristic arrangement of floral parts of primitive flowers. I learnt this knowledge (declarative) in 1970. It’s raw information, I haven’t processed it in any way and I can recall it in the same form as it went in, a mnemonic and it’s full version. Yesterday I rewired a 5 metre extension lead to make a short extension for more power outlets in our house. I’d tried using the original with its long lead wrapped up but it overheated badly. My tools were a pair of secateurs and a Phillips screwdriver. I assumed that I’d find it had screwed terminals as it would have done in the UK. When I looked it was soldered and there’s no earth connection here. I had to buy a new terminal block and it took me 20 minutes to finish the job. This was procedural knowledge. If you ask me how I did it, to give you a detailed description of the inside process, I can’t tell you. I just thought about it and did it. It works ok.

So at one and the same time, we are talking about knowledge as data, information, automatic routine, process, conscious performance, as being communicable and incommunicable, as permanent and transitory. That’s one reason we’re stuck.

My suggestion is to use the terms ‘know-how’ for context related, transitory knowledge, appearing when someone does something skilful, which is admittedly hard to assess; and ‘know-what’ for permanent, unprocessed, information, which informs and enables all ‘knowhow’ to appear and is readily assessable and communicated.

A long answer to a short question – or to put that another way… there’s as much information in the question as in the answer.

Thanks Geoff

In my reply to Harry @webofsubstance below I speculate there is a further distinction between generic skills and thinking processes. That generic skills are transferable across knowledge domains and are learnt through a series of different activities (often over a long time period) of deliberate practice, until we become ‘skilled’ enough to use unconsciously.

Whereas a thinking process is the combination of different skills and Propositional knowledge (developed in the past to a greater or lesser level of expertise) that are brought together in our minds to solve a problem which might be one we have not encountered before.

What do you think of this distinction and where does it fit into the four elements of knowledge model you describe above?


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