“Let truth and falsehood grapple:
who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
Knowledge lessons prioritise memory, instruction and practice;
Skills lessons prioritise engagement, collaboration and reflection.
Last week I (and others, here and here) argued that a debate on skills and knowledge is worth having in education. I see a knowledge-led curriculum with mastery assessment and effective instruction as a frontier that has the potential to tackle the long tail of underachievement, particularly in challenging English schools with disadvantaged pupils.
The question of how best to teach is hotly contested. There are distinctive and fundamental differences in pedagogy between those who advocate a knowledge-led approach and those who advocate a skills-led approach.
The purpose of the skills-led approach is to prioritise and develop transferable skills like collaboration and empathy. The content studied is not so important as transferring their skills to any content or text, whether books, articles or multi-modal media.
In contrast, the purpose of the knowledge-led approach is to prioritise and build cultural capital: in English, textual, contextual and grammatical knowledge – subject-specific content.
These are contrasting mindsets; they result in different pedagogies. Simplified, we can see them as two different models.
The structure of a skills-based lesson is a starter for engagement, activities for collaboration, and a plenary for reflection. Since this three-part lesson had a £500 million endorsement in the National Strategies by the Department for Education and Skills, such skills-based thinking has pervaded English state schools. It’s hard for many teachers who have learned to teach like this to imagine lesson planning without considering starters and plenaries, engagement and reflection, student-led activities and collaborative groupwork. For many, this is the very definition of best pedagogical practice.
Conversely, a knowledge-based lesson prioritises memory, instruction and practice. But far from ‘already doing all of this’, few state school lessons prioritise extended writing practice, extended teacher-led direction, memory drills or multiple-choice questions.
Taking English as an example, as that is what I teach, I’ll give two examples in lessons on reading and writing of these differences.
Reading a Novel
When planning a lesson on a novel in the skills-based mindset, the questions you generally ask are: how will I hook my pupil’s interest and engage their enthusiasm? What activities will I get my pupils to lead collectively in groups? How will I get my pupils to reflect on what they’ve learned?
Planning a skills lesson on a novel
As a starter, for example, you might consider several options: images to develop pupils’ inference skills, or youtube videos – both are engaging. You might consider an energising quizgame like Blockbusters, Countdown, The Weakest Link or Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire – quiz show games combine visuals and music, competition and spectacle, ‘beat-the-clock’ time-pressure and audience participation like ‘phone a friend’ or ‘ask the audience’. Hundreds and thousands of starters to pick from are shared on websites like the TES online. Many are fun; most aim to entertain.
As activities, for instance, you might consider the options of setting up a cardsort in groups, such as a diamond nine discussion, designing a visual poster in pairs, creating a mindmap on big A2 sugar paper with markers in teams, making a storyboard by drawing the characters, or co-teaching each other using a groupwork activity such as carousel, jigsaw, marketplace, home and away groups or ambassadors. You could get them to write a diary entry from one of the characters, to develop their empathy. You might get them to use a strategy such as skimming and scanning to highlight parts of the text. You could get them to create a real-world product such as puppets for a puppet show of the chapter, a trailer for a film production of the book or a blurb for a book cover or a letter to publishers for a new abridged edition, to encourage pupils to develop their higher-order skills like experts.
For your plenary, you might consider the options of self-reflection, such as traffic-lighting their confidence with red (hesitant), amber (uncertain) or green (confident) against the learning outcomes or objectives, writing a post-it-note to summarise what they learned, presenting to other groups, or creating a freeze-frame in groups or pairs, in the shape of a character, episode or theme, while the rest try to guess which it represents. Hundreds and thousands of plenaries to pick from are shared in teacher training. Many are fun; most are happy to get pupils reflecting on their learning.
Planning a knowledge lesson on a novel
When planning a lesson on a novel in the knowledge-based mindset, the questions you ask are: what knowledge of the text and context do they need to consolidate? What new knowledge of the plot, characters, themes or language should I instruct them in? How will they practise using and combining their new and prior knowledge?
For instance, with memory in mind, you’d decide which content requires consolidation: which factual recall questions on the plot, characters, themes or context do I ask of the whole class? The recap could consist of whole-class questioning, silent individual answers to multiple-choice questions or pair discussion, but seldom larger groups, which risk distraction.
Within instruction, you’d carefully select the text extract from the novel and design factual comprehension and comparison questions to ask in an extended, in-depth, whole-class reading of the text. Occasional pair discussion would be combined with individual thinking or writing time before whole-class discussion. You’d check for understanding using multiple-choice hinge-questions that all pupils answer visibly, so that you see who’s not got it yet.
Within practice, you’d set students the key lesson question with a series of sub-questions for the extended individual writing practice. This would eschew empathy tasks like diary entries and postcards home in favour of making connections between context, text, character, plot and themes, depending on the focus of the lesson. This might take the form of a paragraph in books or a single sentence or two on an exit ticket, to check that they’ve learned what’s been taught.
Writing to Persuade
When planning a lesson on writing to persuade in the skills-based mindset, you still plan engaging starters, collaborative activities and reflective plenaries.
The starter might be a stimulating question, ideally with provocative visual or audiovisual stimulus, or a cardsort to match persuasive techniques (using the AFOREST acronym as a generic mnemonic) to definitions. The activities might be an opinion grid with post-its or stalls round the room before drafting a persuasive speech on a topic that ideally is relevant to them: at Key Stage 3 or 4 this might be on a TV program they love or loathe, or celebrities as role models. After drafting an assembly speech or magazine article to a real-world audience of young people, the plenary might be for the confident pupils to read out their writing, or for everyone to peer-assess or self-evaluate, which has the added benefit of saving teachers’ time on marking.
When planning a lesson on persuasive writing in a knowledge-led mindset, you still plan for memory, instruction and practice. The recap would eschew acronyms and instead consolidate pupil’s knowledge of classical rhetorical devices such as enargia, epiplexis and anaphora through examples in great historical speeches of world leaders. The instruction would eschew relevant topics and instead broaden pupils’ cultural horizons by focusing on a key moment, dilemma or speech in the biography of a leader who spoke in English such as Elizabeth I, Lincoln, Bright, Churchill, Gandhi, King, Malcolm X, Mandela or Obama. The practice would involve either writing an analysis of the speech or arguing for or against the leader’s approach, though this is complex and would require extensive contextual and content knowledge. Teacher marking would be prioritised over peer-assessment and self-evaluation.
What we see from these two examples is not only that the sequence within lessons differ between the skills and the knowledge approach; the objectives differ, too.
Those who prioritise skills-based approach tend to choose verbs for their objectives such as evaluate, create, co-teach, infer, predict, assess, question, generate, investigate, transform, reflect, co-construct.
Those who prioritise knowledge over skills tend to think of questions that are seen as ‘lower-order’ by skills advocates, aiming for pupils to know, understand, remember, recall, apply, describe, explain and connect their knowledge.
The underpinning rationale for the contrasting approaches is based on conflicting theories.
The generic skills approach is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, a pervasive cross-subject feature of Initial Teacher Training and Continuing Professional Development. In this theory, knowledge and recall is at the bottom, a ‘lower order skill’; ‘higher-order’ skills are evaluation and synthesis. In the eyes of a knowledge advocate, the almost-inevitable logic of Bloom’s pyramid is that extensive cultural knowledge is neglected. For the skills advocate, learning styles, independent learning and learning to learn are much more useful and transferable than mere facts.
The approach of instruction in subject knowledge is based on Engelmann’s theory of instruction, corroborated by Hattie’s meta-analyses. Instruction is most effective when concepts are explicitly explained through sequences of examples, questions, practice and instant feedback. For the knowledge advocate, Hattie corroborates Hirsch and Willingham that broad knowledge, long-term memory and deliberate practice are vital for learning.
Underlying these contrasting mindsets and rationales are conflicting ideologies of education.
Underneath the skills mindset is constructivism, which holds that pupils must construct their own learning, and that teachers must facilitate student-led activities rather than instruct and direct learning. Underneath the knowledge mindset is cognitivism, which holds that subject knowledge and explicit teacher-led instruction are essential for novices across all domains.
A tale of two red herrings
Variety and Synthesis
The red herring here is not the skills-knowledge debate, which needs to be had, and fully; the red herrings here are variety and synthesis.
Variety as a Distraction
“Surely a diet of just one approach would kill students’ desire to learn and our desire to teach?”
“The only “wrong” teaching strategy is using the same one all the time…”
These two comments on my last blog are well meaning, but the notion of a well-balanced variety of constructivism and cognitivism, Vygotsky and Willingham, Bloom and Engelmann, generic transferable skills and subject-specific knowledge is misguided.
Think about the dazzling, mind-boggling complexity of pupils’ secondary school experience. The challenge of understanding and remembering complex, overlapping and confusing concepts is highly demanding. Remember the sheer number of subjects they study: around 10 different domains. Often, the same verbal concept has a completely different meaning across domains: think of the multiple meanings of the word ‘structure’ in Science, English, Maths, French and History.
Cognitivism and knowledge-led instruction prioritise clarity and memory to avoid confusion and forgetting. Constructivism and skills-led facilitation prioritise variety across and within lessons, and downplay memory. With five different subjects a day, clarity in each subject is more helpful than variety for pupils. Knowledge-led instruction focuses on:
- Helping pupils understand complex abstract concepts across their many subjects
- Minimising confusion, maximising consolidation
- Preventing pupils from misunderstanding what we’re teaching
- Preventing pupils’ misconceptions sinking in
- Allowing less social loafing, more individual accountability
- Helping pupils remember what they’re learning
- Helping poorer pupils catch up with richer kids
In a nutshell, variety is a distraction. Content already varies; pedagogy should vary by domain, rather than within or across lessons. Kids get enough variety in the nature of a school day organised across varying subjects.
Synthesis as a Mirage
“Why not do both? Why not synthesise constructivism and cognivitism?” Some say the skills and knowledge approaches are not mutually exclusive.
On the contrary: the conflicting approaches are based on conflicting theories of learning that cannot usefully be reconciled or synthesized. If it’s right that knowledge should be prioritised over skills, we should not seek a cosy, happy medium between that idea and the notion that skills should be prioritised over knowledge. If one pupil believes 10+10 is 20, and another believes it is 30, that does not mean the right answer is 25!
The reason why cognitivism is the right answer to the question of how best to teach, and constructivism is much less helpful, is because of its scientific approach and its specificity of classroom insight. Constructivism’s zone of proximal development is right but vague; its de-emphasis on teacher-led instruction is wrong and unhelpful for lesson planning. In contrast, cognivitism’s insights into preventing cognitive overload and building long-term memory are both robust and very, very useful for unit and lesson planning.
Count the Opportunity Cost
The best lens on the issue is opportunity cost. We have limited time with pupils in lessons, and teachers have limited time for resourcing too. The opportunity cost of allowing my pupils to focus on supposedly relevant topics they already know about like celebrities, TV and social networking, is that it limits my time to help them catch up with richer kids who get rich cultural knowledge at home. The opportunity cost of spending entire lessons making posters and trailers, doing enquiry circles and opinion positioning, carousel groupwork and fun games is that they have less time to focus on broadening their horizons by reading and writing about the greatest literature, (auto)biographies and speeches ever written. Given that poorer kids start secondary school thousands of words behind richer kids in vocabulary, it seems to me that we are widening the gap if English in disadvantaged schools is taught without an unrelenting focus on explicit knowledge of context, novels, plays, poems, grammar, rhetoric, spelling and vocabulary.
Is synthesising constructivism and cognitivism a mirage?
In a nutshell, synthesis is a mirage. I choose to prioritise knowledge over skills for the sake of closing the educational achievement gap, rather than aiming for variety, relevance and synthesis for the sake of these notions as ends in themselves.
However, just as the curriculum cannot be considered without considering assessment, lesson planning cannot be considered without considering unit planning. Next week, I plan to look at the differences in medium-term unit planning between the knowledge and the skills approach.