How knowledge is being detached from skills in English


A cornerstone of teacher training is Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge is placed firmly at the bottom. The advice for teachers is, move beyond low-level facts, up to higher-order skills like synthesis. But what if this advice misses the point?

My experience as an English teacher in London has helped me realise a few simple ideas:

  1. In English education, skills are being detached from knowledge.
  2. Teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work.
  3. Instead, they must be integrated, like twin strands of a double helix.

So this is the first in a series of three blog posts in three days to explain what I mean.

1. Skills are being detached from knowledge in English.

The education system has reduced the amount of knowledge taught in schools, especially, from what I’ve seen, in English departments. Take, for example, the English national secondary curriculum in the six years since 2007. There’s not one text that is named. Nor is there one grammatical concept that is specified. There’s not a single fact sequenced. There’s just one paragraph of suggested authors for tens of pages of skills specifications. At only a few pages, the new draft English curriculum in 2013 is slimmer, and it specifies even fewer authors: only Shakespeare is named, and not a single novel, play or poem is mentioned. This is what the national curriculum has been reduced to in England, even one that is supposedly knowledge-based: a curriculum devoid of any specific literary texts.


Our last specified author

It’s not only in the curriculum that knowledge is restricted, for assessment has also played its part. National levels, the numerical system of APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) still used in many schools, are generic skills descriptors that inadequately account for knowledge of the text. Kids could achieve a level 7 for analysing the film Jaws but fall down to a level 4 when analysing Macbeth, because of the complexity of the content. Assessment questions require prior knowledge of precious little content or context, but rather the application of analytical skills to various generic non-fiction texts on topics like football, celebrity chefs, and the food enjoyed by rappers. One study showed it was possible to achieve an A grade in GCSE English without reading a single book in its entirety (Civitas 2007). GCSE topics range from TV to Twitter, requiring little or no content to be learned.

Teacher training as I experienced it also limited the amount of knowledge English teachers taught. Both ITT and CPD constantly set trainees targets around moving tasks up the supposed hierarchy from basic factual recall to superior creative synthesis. ‘Don’t ask so many closed factual questions; ask open higher-order questions’ was a piece of advice I was often given. The idea of training teachers what content to teach, and how to sequence concepts, seemed not to have occurred to the trainers. Securing an enduring understanding of texts and their contexts was off the agenda.

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist.

When I started being observed, I was offered feedback that tried to get me to move away from teaching too much content. ‘Your role is not to impart content, but to train their skills,’ I was told. It was important not to ‘spoon-feed them knowledge’ and instead, ‘get them evaluating higher up Bloom’s taxonomy.’ It seemed almost universally acknowledged that learning facts was passive, dull and unhelpful.

As English teachers, we don’t seem to specify coherently the content, concepts and context that pupils should know by the end of the units we teach. Neither do we systematically test whether pupils have learned what core concepts like metaphors mean, what happened in the context of the author’s life and times, or sometimes even the basic events and order of the plot in texts. In any secondary English teacher’s experience, there are plenty of examples of this content-light curriculum and skills-only assessment in practice.

Image  Image

English GCSE is amongst the most striking illustration of this. For instance, a standard English Language GCSE controlled assessment title I taught was to ‘write a newspaper article for young people about a TV program you love or loathe’. Very little knowledge is required or assessed. The criteria are instead on style and structure. Another English Language GSCE unit is on spoken language, and the controlled assessment task bank includes for instance the title: ‘explore the similarities and differences between speaking and web-based messaging sites such as Twitter’. TV and Twitter together took up 20% of these pupils’ English Language GCSE. Even units on literature require little knowledge of the text and context. The English Language GCSE assessment on the novel, usually Of Mice and Men, is not marked on context at all, and focuses instead on spotting language techniques rather than requiring deep understanding of the text and its era.

English at Key Stage 3 suffers from a similar lack of teaching and assessing knowledge. This comes down frequently to the texts selected. The themes, plot, characters, language and context are much shallower in Cirque du Freak, published in 2010, than in Oliver Twist, published in 1837. One is transiently popular, the other has enthralled for over a century, yet it is the former that is much more likely to be taught to 11 year olds in English departments. I have had to teach it to Year 7 two years in a row, but I could have told you the first time that there is very little valuable knowledge that comes with reading transient vampire novels.

Image  Image

In my classroom practice, all this restricted the amount of knowledge I taught. When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.


National amnesia?

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all. Most pupils had no idea who Churchill was; some had the faint idea that he was that dog off the TV. This was a pervasive rather than isolated experience, including in top sets I taught.

Nor is this unrepresentative of other schools in poor communities without as much cultural capital as leafier suburbs. A colleague of mine teaching English in a disadvantaged school found that pupils were under the illusion that the English language was invented in the 1960s and that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Here’s an anecdote from another English teacher:

When I started teaching, brainstorming seemed like a brilliant plan. I would ask them to brainstorm Shakespeare, they would write down the names of a couple of his plays, perhaps the century he lived in, I’d use this as a launchpad to say a few things about Romeo and Juliet, and the context would be established.  In reality it went like this:

PUPIL: But I don’t know anything about Shake – shake – whatever his name is.

ME: But you must know something? Anything at all, anything you think is relevant.

PUPIL B: I know! He was gay!

PUPIL A: Oh yeah! And didn’t he write that film? That one with the man with the big nose? OLIVER!

ME: Well, he was a writer…

So the pupils knew was that Shakespeare was gay and he wrote Oliver the musical. I would stand at the board, desperately trying to convert what they had said into something approaching the truth, desperately not trying to tell them at any point that they were wrong, desperately trying to avoid imposing my one version of who Shakespeare was and unfairly and undemocratically denying their version of him as a gay musical film writer who wrote about 19th century workhouses.

Now, this isn’t a problem exclusive to English, but it certainly is a problem that impacts terrifyingly on these pupils’ literacy. Examples from across the humanities abound. One teacher found her pupils confused over whether Iran and Iraq were the same country; whether Sydney was in California; and whether Henry VIII is the Queen’s son. Another teacher mentions here that 16 year olds couldn’t place their city on a map of Britain, list the four countries that make up the UK, tell the difference between England and Great Britain, or name the date of one significant historical event. Still another teacher and education blogger I know told me that her pupils thought Manchester was in Scotland, Wales was an island and the Romans came from Portugal. Many couldn’t spot the UK, the US, or China on a map, even ‘the top set Year 10 superstars.’ Political knowledge seems particularly impoverished: in another teacher’s school, many pupils couldn’t name the Prime Minister. Some had a hazy idea it was Obama. Some said ‘Gordon Blair’. No one could name all three main political parties, or even any other than Labour. Maths seems to suffer from similar knowledge deficit in some schools in disadvantaged communities. A Maths teacher I know in the West Midlands told me his pupils thought you might measure the distance between Liverpool and London in centimetres; one pupil in a Year 10 top set asked him what ‘square it’ meant; another from another set, one day before a GCSE exam, a Year 11 student asked what a percentage was. Even History undergraduates know little: when surveyed by one University professor, around 90% of them could not name one British 19th century Prime Minister.

The point of all these examples isn’t to laugh. It’s the opposite: it’s deeply, deeply troubling for a democratic society that so few graduates seem to know its past well, and so many school children in tough circumstances seem to know so little about politics and the country’s geography. But perhaps it isn’t so shocking. Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

Given such a content-light curriculum, assessment and training regime, who can doubt that our education system has elevated skills over knowledge? My next post tomorrow explains why teaching skills without knowledge in English doesn’t work.




About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How knowledge is being detached from skills in English

  1. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:

    The first of a three-post series over three days about knowledge and skills in English.

  2. Zahra says:

    I couldn’t agree more! This is my biggest bugbear about English too – it drives me absolutely crazy. I’m intrigued to know what your suggestions for reform are! 😉 x

  3. Tilly says:


    Your experience of being told to use Bloom’s taxonomy for your higher order questioning completely resonates me. Only at A* for GCSE are students expected to EVALUATE the effectiveness of the author’s craft yet this requires an implicit understanding of CONTEXT and a WIDER KNOWLEDGE of literature.

  4. Know we’ve had this discussion on Twitter Joe but I wanted to put here for posterity that some of the examples you have given here are actually in the National Curriculum, yet that hasn’t solved the problem. Political parties, and the devolved areas of the UK (and the way they work together), are specified parts of the Citizenship national curriculum. The History curriculum also specifies that students should study “The histories of the different parts of the British Isles and their impact on each other”. In the case of the maths you actually could measure the distance from London to Liverpool if doing so on a map (and then multiplying by a key), so that’s perhaps not as daft a statement as it first seems.

    It’s also true that people do confuse concepts, it is both commonly and easily done. If, when we encounte this, we become despondent then we can fall into the trap of trying to find a system to blame rather than thinking about why, for this individual, that particular mistake has been made. Often it is not that they were never taught that concept, or that the curriculum has abandoned knowledge. Sometimes it because of another concept overshadowing them (the Churchill dog has a lot to answer for!), or they were never taught it because the teacher thought something else was more important and instead gave a different body of knowledge (you may disagree, of course, but don’t presume that they weren’t given ANY knowledge just because you don’t ask about that topic), or perhaps they were taught the knowledge you are looking for in a lesson when a bee flew in which disrupted everything and in a rush to get through a very detailed curriculum the teacher never revisited that knowledge to ensure it was consolidated.

    I am with you that facts are important. I guess my point is that the idea that everyone has abandoned knowledge, or that if we just wrote things in a curriculum it would all be solved, is to somewhat jump the gun. Issues of teachers not bothering to undo misconceptions, or of them making silly decisions about what to teach without due thought for what students will need next, or of not consolidating via deep and repetitive assessment are real issues and, I think, underpin your what is exasperating you much more than a straightforward “lack of specified fact” in the overall national curriculum.

  5. Katie Burningham says:


    I have read your blog with great interest. Though clearly well researched and argued, I have grown increasingly concerned about the way you are polarizing this debate: it simply does not represent the English classrooms I know.

    1. My pupils learn many specific grammatical concepts because they need them to communicate clearly, are implicitly assessed on them when we judge their clarity of expression and are explicitly assessed when I follow the mark scheme, whether that is derived from the national curriculum, APP or the exam board criteria.
    2. When I teach Of Mice and Men I teach context because a significant amount of the marks are allocated in their GCSE lit exam to their knowledge of this (I believe 40% in the case of the WJEC). Similarly, they require an understanding of the whole text in order to develop a detailed and nuanced response to it.
    3. I can’t believe anybody would argue against students knowing about World War I. That your students didn’t is not necessarily a result of the curriculum. Similarly, Churchill worked really well with my bottom set year 10s, simultaneously teaching them about rhetoric and, through discussion, politics. And if a child does not know about Shakespeare, it is our job to teach them, rather than be shocked that they have had different life and cultural experiences thus far.

    Of course students need to know about their subject and the world around them; knowledge and content go hand in hand with skills. The Blooms taxonomy may suggest an inferiority of knowledge but it doesn’t have to be used from the bottom up, nor is it the only pedagogical method used. There are many discussions that need to be had about what pupils learn (personally I would rather teach Oliver than Cirque du Freak: better writing = better analysis) and how they learn, but I don’t believe the divide between knowledge and skills is as stark as you suggest, and nor should it be.

    Best wishes,


  6. Coral says:

    Reblogged this on travellingcoral and commented:
    I didn’t know left from right politically at 16, I blame my parents

  7. Marius Frank says:

    Good morning all
    I have three issues:
    a) that knowledge is too constrained by the methodology implemented to ASSESS knowledge (as a Headteacher, doing learning walks and lesson observations for ten years, I got to know “Of Mice and Men” really well without ever reading the book!)
    b) which leads to teaching to the test, which may not be an issue with the brightest (although they possibly could be constrained by “aiming for A*”) but certainly blights the curriculum experience of borderline learners
    c) and, with reference to Bloom and Piaget, some learners, usually because of deep and sustained social and education deprivation from the day they are born, do not develop the abstract cognitive skills until 17-18… or maybe, sadly, never.

    What if a progressive assessment regime were implemented instead? What if the curriculum came first, perhaps even co-constructed with learners, then the appropriate assessment methodologies implemented to assess progress (not just, I hasten to add, a linear terminal written paper).

    Have a look at and the Progressive Awards Alliance.

    We are looking for passionate and skilled english and Maths teachers to join us: there has got to be a better and fairer way to conduct examinations, that set teaching and learning free rather constrain and confusticate!

    Marius Frank

  8. suecowley says:

    I was under the impression that Bloom’s Taxonomy actually suggests that knowledge is the basis for all that follows, not that it is inferior because it is at the bottom of the pyramid? Perhaps I wasn’t listening properly in that lecture during my BEd course.

    We are all ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as I said in a recent blog post – knowledge is important, and vital, and valuable. You won’t get any argument from me about that. But there’s a difference between stuffing knowledge into children and trying to be a teacher who encourages children to want to learn about these things in depth and make them ‘stick’ through experiences.

    My son knows everything there is to know about the EU and the UN, because he has been involved in a project called ‘Model United Nations’ (he’s particularly hot on Belarus as this was ‘his’ country). Through experiencing the ‘real life’ MUN scenario he has learned about politics, debating, what things like GDP, literacy rates, infant mortality, etc. all mean.

    I honestly don’t see why people are seeking to separate knowledge from skills, as though one can exist separately from the other. Well, I think I do understand why this is happening, but I think it’s got very little to do with what genuinely happens in schools and is more about an attempt to paint schools and teachers as doing something that they are not.

    The vast majority of teachers I have met and known use a wide variety of approaches, balancing knowledge with skills with understanding with enjoyment in a daily struggle to meet the needs of all of their children. Yes, some of those children do have a knowledge deficit, but this is as much about their home background and the parental input they have received as it is yet another thing to blame teachers about. Those teachers who have trained with Teach First (and perhaps come from a public school background) seem surprised that there are children who live in a very disadvantaged world. But imposing a private school model onto the state system is not, to my mind, the solution. Yes, all children deserve the very best, but equally there is a balancing act to be performed between realism, motivation, behaviour and teaching. Remember too that these ‘challenging schools’ do not represent the entire English education system.

    What I do love about all this current debate is that it fires me up to argue my point. What I dislike is that, as Laura says, people are seeking to polarise teachers into an entrenched position, when that does not represent the reality of the situation as I see it when I go into schools.

    • Katie Burningham says:

      In response to the above, I have, like Joe, attended some lectures where it has been suggested that we should move students quickly onto the higher order thinking skills at the top of the pyramid. However on reflection, I don’t think that this means that knowledge is inferior, rather that it is assumed that students would have this as the bedrock of their thinking, as you suggest.

      As with many things in education, it is a matter of interpretation: I doubt the lecturer I was listening to intended for me to interpret knowledge as inferior. Similarly, just because the national curriculum does not specify which texts we should teach, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach any. The majority of highly educated and professional teachers I work with are perfectly capable of choosing what to teach, carefully balancing texts which are culturally valid (as contentious as that is) and suit the context in which they are taught, or find ways of making Dickins accessible and relevant.

      I think I am a bit fired up by this debate as it comes after a week in which I feel that teachers and students have been continually misrepresented. The issues at stake are far more complex, and fascinating, than I feel is often acknowledged.

  9. Mark Deacon says:

    see blog post on forwarded email.

    This boy needs solo

  10. Andy Day says:

    I don’t feel qualified to comment on the knowledge/skills weighting in English, but as your post touches on my subject, Joe, it was wearing to come in last night to read your declamation of lack of ‘knowldedge’ demanded of students. This was the day of the final Geography GCSE exam with students coming in for an intensive 2hr final revision session in the morning before the afternoon paper. The Assessment objectives for the paper are 40% Knowledge & Understanding of places, 40% using a variety of Skills (largely OS map-reading) and 20% Application of knowledge in unfamiliar contexts. Students, in this far from affluent community, again staggered me with their commitment to learning the revision-guide we put together for them of essential ‘knowledge’ and the reams of flash-cards, mind-maps, bullet-points and whatever other preferred revision choice they made. So, you wil understand, if reading your post was a little like the annual declaration that GCSEs are getting easier on results day. You posts are characterised by the erudite reading you have carried out and the meticulously researched links you provide. But this one didn’t convince, based as it is, on so much teacher anecdote. Yes, we know there will be students who can’t locate their town on a map, and yesterday I corrected an A level student when he referred to Africa as a ‘country’. It happens. It doesn’t mean education, teaching or the system is failing or that we are failing students. With all such questions of ‘don’t they know who Churchill was?’ – it strikes me that it’s always the subsequent question that’s more important and that locks the first one into the memory. “If he wasn’t prime minister at the outbreak of the war, and there wasn’t an election, how come he got to be prime minister?”… or…”Why was the election just after VE Day met with a landslide for the opposition?” It’s about making sure there is an appropriate context for the essential knowledge – that essential follow-up question to knowing where London is.

    Whether this is true, also, for English – you are in a better position to say. But I do think many of the questions you raise have different slants depending on the subject you are teaching each day, and how many times you’ve taken students throught the exam cycle, read the examiners’ reports and honed the techniques to fit the need.

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