Sunday, 13 January 2013

Knowledge and/or Skills

What is more vital? Teaching of knowledge or skills?  Anyone with sense will know that they are symbiotic - they work together to improve students' ability - but too often I hear that teaching knowledge is somehow inferior, or even unnecessary, when trying to improve certain skills.  I don't want to get drawn into debating where the new curriculum is heading - I simply want to outline how the overt teaching of knowledge improves the learning and outcome of skills at KS3, 4 and 5 in English.

(I may well be preaching to the choir here, in which case I apologise.  However, the debate of knowledge vs. skills crops up so often on Twitter that I think it's worth considering.)

I am an English teacher, and as such I will focus on the value of skills and knowledge within that subject area.  There may be areas of overlap with other subjects, but not necessarily.  English is seen as a primarily skills based subject, I think, by most teachers.  The skills involved are all linguistic - reading, writing, speaking and listening.  These are skill-sets that we seek to improve between years 7-13, and all are assessed on a regular basis.  But do these skills ignore knowledge?  Should the teaching of 'knowledge' - that is the sharing of scientific, emotional and artistic facts, plus the transmission of the opinions of people throughout history and around the globe - be a part of skill-teaching in English?

I would say it is intrinsic, and that teaching skills without also teaching relevant 'knowledge' is deeply misguided, simply because it's an unnecessary self-imposed limitation that doesn't really benefit anyone.  Knowledge, as defined above, is a vital part of any informed analysis of text, or piece of writing, or conversation.  As teachers, it would be remiss of us to opt out of transmitting the ideas and facts about the world that would help inform the skills we are teaching.

Let's take the analysis of a poem as a case in point.  Imagine we are analysing Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', and we are a Yr 10 class.  The skill we will be improving and practicing will be textual analysis.  Now, analysis of the language of the poem is fundamentally a skill utilising the literacy skills that will be long-established by the student.  They will be able to analyse the line 'this coyness lady were no crime' and argue that the use of 'crime' has certain connotations - connotations that they picked up long ago.  But this kind of rudderless analysis based on literacy that has been cemented since Primary School will not serve them well, and it is impossible to improve their skill without giving them access to some knowledge that, up to this point, they have lacked.  They will need some contextual understanding of the position of women in the 17th Century for starters.  They will also need to be taught a little about human empathy and feelings (how many times have we had to teach students that people aren't purely good/bad, but that there are shades in between?  This is not a skill - it's a fact that must be taught, either proactively by a teacher or passively through the reading of books).  They will require, in short, some teaching of facts and opinions to make their analysis full and worthwhile.

An analysis of a later part of the poem, where Marvell uses the imagery of death to frighten the woman to bed, will only yield worthwhile results if the students spend some time researching/being taught the cultural associations of death, tombs, burial and such like.  Expecting them to come up with good analysis based only on their naive, pre-conceived notions of death, established at KS1 and 2 is extreme folly, when it would take only one lesson to improve their position.  Note that I am arguing that analysis of text is possible without overt teaching of accompanying knowledge, but that I don't see the point of leaving it there, when the analysis could be enriched so easily by giving them some extra knowledge to work with.

In writing, it is fair to say that skills alone will get us a long way (once the initial 'knowledge-transmission' of basic literacy is complete).  A student can write a passable letter to the headteacher about school uniforms without knowing very much of the wider world, and they can write a film review with no knowledge at all of the film-making process.  So far, so good, if we're happy to leave it at that.  But why should we?  Why would we, as teachers, not want to enrich their writing by teaching them of relevant concepts, events, terminology, culture?  Teaching a student to write a film review without teaching them facts about film making, such as camera angles, film terminology, a little of the history of Hollywood seems shortsighted at best and negligent at worst.  Knowledge is the perfect ally to skills, and allows the skills to be used to their utmost.  A student who uses the recently-taught knowledge they've gained in their writing will elevate it massively compared to one who doesn't (or can't, because they received none).

The same goes for teaching Speaking and Listening to, of course.  But I will detain you no longer.  Skills in English are fundamental; skills informed and improved by freshly-taught, relevant knowledge are the icing on the education cake - one that every student should be allowed a slice of.

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