Knowledge vs skills – what education must provide

Jul 19, 2021

In the education world, scarcely would once have imagined the proponents of knowledge and of skill being at loggerheads with one another. Yet here we are in the 21st century where, as recently as 2018, English academic Briar Lipson dismissed the craze for new skills as “un-evidenced hogwash”!

Briar Lipson

What is knowledge- and skill-based education?

Knowledge-based education primarily entails a close study of books, specializing in the ‘examine and write’ system. It relies on rote learning, and is common in several schools and other educational institutions.

Skill-based education, on the other hand, requires experience, believing that real-life practice lies at the core of better learning. ‘Learning by doing’ is the mantra here, extending beyond the confines of the blackboard to actually learn new skills through practice.

Essentially, sensory inputs – listening, reading, touching, and more – endow a person with knowledge, and the latter can be transferred between people or acquired by oneself. Learning a skill, though, comes from applying knowledge to particular situations with a combination of sensory input and output. Knowledge, then, is theoretical, while skills are practical.

Real life explains the difference very well.

Day-to-day life is the best illustrator of knowledge vs skills. Knowing all rules and statistics of a sport as well as its main teams and players does not make one a good player, bereft as the person will be of skills and techniques. Aerospace engineers are experts on avionics and flight theory, but cannot fly aircraft, just like a pilot has minimal knowledge of these subjects yet is the person to fly a plane.

Here is a clearer explanation:

  • Knowledge is facts and information tucked away in long-term memory, and called upon as and when needed.

  • Skills are the action and behavioral manifestations of knowledge and understanding i.e. behavior as well as what and how well something is done. A cycle of feedback and practice is needed when developing new skills.

Is all that knowledge really needed?

The answer to this question is often in the negative, yet knowledge is clearly a prerequisite for true skill. Every subject builds a connection in the minds of students such it serves some purpose in the lives of the latter. A historian may feel science is unnecessary, a doctor might think the same of mathematics, yet the associated information often comes in handy in the future, if not in the present. Knowledge-based education is undeniably important, yet does not imply the need for expertise in every subject – it merely implies basic foundations for later use.

The skills phenomenon has gained momentum.

There is a clear call-out to skill-based education in recent years, away from decades of looking at just knowledge and grades. From zero-skill subject experts, students now learn how to apply knowledge to real-life situations. Spoon-feeding is eschewed in favor of spurring curiosity. On top of skill-building, education personality development, counselling, and excursions to learn life skills best imparted outside of a four-wall classroom.

Skill Based Learning

Academic strategies and tasks must cultivate the requisite skills and behaviors. Instead of spoon-feeding, give access to useful resources and explain how those are to be used. Develop conflict resolution skills through critical discourse and debate, develop effective research by encouraging a wider source pool, and boost cognitive skills such as reasoning, which traditional assignments and content do not develop.

The excitement over skills is possibly a bit off course.

Focusing on skills while being critical of knowledge was, however, never the idea. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher considered the godfather of skill-based teaching, felt teaching knowledge suffered from the struggle of practical application, dependence on the ability of the knowledge giver, and often was quite uninteresting. He could not foresee how knowledge actually works with skill teaching, given his ahead-of-time thoughts that education had not caught up with.

Skills in one area are not necessarily transferable to others. Love for family does not imply a love for geography, given the qualitative difference in the usage of “love”. Analytical skills intrinsic to chess will not better the analysis of history. Common mistakes here include:

  • Believing in assessing student progress through skill-based ladders

  • Academic assessments assuming the possibility of assessing knowledge and skills independent of each other

  • Focusing on reading skills as a sure shot to better comprehension, which is in truth more reliant on background knowledge

  • Upping the focus on skills by trimming textbook content

  • Designing curricula where knowledge is chosen as a purported vehicle to develop generic, transferable skills

Knowledge and skills are not independent of each other!

The debate has erroneously become one about knowledge vs skills – teaching knowledge, skills, or a mix of both. These three options presume knowledge and skills can be taught independent of each other, which is akin to favoring either a cake mixture or the finished cake – both in truth depend on each other!

Skills are a product of fluency of knowledge in a particular area. A child who has grown to understand when he/she is being teased is no character expert, but is someone who has understood the behavior of his/her peers well. Essays could be good but not great, analytical and creative but technically inaccurate, and thereby could be elevated with better grammar and punctuation augmenting the arguments being presented. Skill is necessary, but knowledge is critical. The aim is to transform mere learners into independent thinkers and professionals, prepared to face challenges and unknowns the future may bring upon them.

Master the balance between knowledge and skills.

New skills are important, as is a solid knowledge base. Modern dynamics must be considered, as the Internet, for instance, has made access to knowledge simple without the need to learn new skills. Overall knowledge levels of students and professionals will determine the tilt of the beam toward either side, focusing on the area that lacks expertise. As per the situation at hand, the system must adapt, modify, and be dynamic.

Assess both in the right way.

Important as learning new skills and knowledge is, assessing these is critical too. The approach must differ for the two, as progress for both is measured differently:

  • Progress in skills implies acquiring new skills or developing existing ones

  • Progress in knowledge is an increased amount of knowledge with an individual along with the ability to quickly retrieve it (the latter is in effect a skill)

Assessing knowledge is a binary activity – an individual either knows or does not know something. For skills, it is not quite so, as they operate in a continuum but with more performance-based summative assessments. Teachers will accordingly infer skill development levels, with student and other learner work evidencing improvements from practice. Feedback for knowledge is a simple yes/no, while skills need more specific inputs on what as well as how to improve.

The last word…

Binary assessments insufficiently quantify development, and education and learning must be built on models of progression. Knowledge and understanding are the foundations underpinning skills. Skills are further developed with modeling, practice, and feedback. One cannot exist without the other; else it would be easy to write a great essay on a topic that the writer has scant knowledge of!

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