How best to teach: knowledge-led or skills-led lessons?

“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.


Contrasting Objectives

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.


Conflicting Theories

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.

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.

29 Responses to How best to teach: knowledge-led or skills-led lessons?

  1. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Lots to agree with; lots to question for me! You easily conflate constructivism and skills; cognitivism with knowledge. I clearly have a different concept of probably all of those terms as you define them! For me, synthesis is not the mirage, the mirage would be the simple answer to the complexity as you present it.

    The opportunity cost paragraph is a case in point. You cherry pick a few strategies out of context and then decide that reading and writing about the great texts is our singular focus. Take opinion positioning (It think I know what you mean!): that can help scaffold the ideas and layer the arguments for excellent writing about the greatest speeches ever known. I could, and have, teach in such a way – leading from the front – without any seeming compromise in terms of focus of the great speech. If I was to be presented with an entire key stage curriculum that characterised what you preset then I may well be persuaded.

    I am actually in favour of a knowledge led curriculum. I have little time for teaching cross-curricular skills. I favour a subject specific domain. As you know, I also view the ‘best curriculum’ as being rooted in great literature. I also recognise the importance of procedural knowledge – or skills – for practice to consolidate knowledge. Am I looking for some “cosy, happy medium” (I find that a mild jibe at my apparent ‘unprincipled compromise’) – no. Am I looking beyond fighting over ambiguous terminology? Yes. I am looking to the best pedagogy for my students in my context. I will base it in evidence – using Hattie et al. with due tentativeness; using cognitive psychology etc. I will retain my professional autonomy and define my own terms.

  3. That comment is replete with errors – my iPad is troublesome for writing comments!

  4. bt0558 says:

    “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.”

    I believe this to be wrong for a number of reasons.Anderson and Krathwohl et al explain quite clearly when revisiting Bloom’s taxonomy that Knowledge is a fundamental pre-requisite for all cognitive processing.In fact they considered it so important that they created a whole new dimension in the model. They consider remembering, understanding and application things you do with knowledge.

    Analysis, evaluation and creating are cognitive processes that are described as higher in order in that they involve the manipulation of knowledge. Knowledge and cognitive processes are different according to A&K et al.

    The original Bloom’s conflated knowledge and cognitive processes which was seen at the time as an issue. Original Bloom’s was also simply a taxonomy of learning objectives, that is a common framework for assessment of existing knowledge and understanding.Bloom’s was nothing to do with instruction whereas A&K et al is. I do not believe the skills/knowledge debate is anything to do with Bloom’s taxonomy, although A&K et al do illuminate the situation.

    I know of few teachers who see skills as “generic”, and it makes no difference how many times people say such, it is ignored. Skills are always contextual but some transfer to other contexts more easily than others. Dan Willingham talks about the limited success of teaching generally transferable skills rather than content. Most evidence seems to suggest that this is the case.

    A number of bloggers like to suggest that the skills debate is about Bloom’s taxonomy as it is outdated and lacking in rigour, which is wrong. Some bloggers will talk about “generic” skills rather than transferable skills as this makes an extreme argument more reasonable.

    To suggest that …”For the skills advocate, learning styles, independent learning and learning to learn are much more useful and transferable than mere facts”, is I feel disingenuous. I teach knowledge and skills (some transferable not generic). I think learner differences are important and to quibble about “learning styles” is very 20th century.

    As a learner, it was when I became an independent learner that my education and knowledge took off exponentially. I believe that by creating independent learners, which is what I think education for the privileged does is the key to resolving issues of inequality. I feel that learners can (and I did) fill the gaps left in the knowledge that I acquired at home. I don’t suggest that independent learning should trump knowledge, in fact if I am able to develop independent learners I am able to levrage the knowledge that I transfer to my learners.

    When you talk about “mere facts” you start to misrepresent teachers. When you talk about Bloom’s and link it to a “skills led approach” you continue to represent. When to talk of “lower order skills” you continue to represent.

    When you say “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”. Suggesting a balance is not a “mindset”, you continue to misrepresent. Suggesting a balance between knowledge and skills has nothing whatsoever to do with constructivism and my understanding of constructivism has nothing whatsoever to do with student-led activities. Socially constructivist teaching methods perhaps.

    I think many teachers are getting bored with the discussion as “content” people seem to think they understand current best practice and research and the rest are somehow unprofessional.

    I also try to see past false evidence and imprecise definitions, but I feel that it is precisely these things that turn many off from the debate. They don’t see it as unimportnat, simply pointless.

    Let it be said that if there are teachers out there who think that knowledge is not important then I disagree. If there are any teachers out there who think that activities should be student led, then I disagree. If there are teachers out there who think that there is a large collection of “generic” skills that should be taught without reference to context based knowledge then I disagree. If there are teachers out there who believe that lessons should be either all “direct instruction” or all “active learning” I disagree. The thing is I believe the vast majority of teachers would also disagree.

    PS… I also feel that Hirsch has some valuable and some not so valuable things to say. I spoke to a kid last week who said he quickly got bored with 40 minutes of teacher talk every lesson. He wasn’t impressed when I told him that Hattie had brought together 10 studies or 10 studies of 10 studies which show that he should because it rated 0.??

  5. Pingback: How best to teach: knowledge-led or skills-led lessons? | LeAnne Hitt

  6. dodiscimus says:

    I too, like Alex and Laura, want to pick up this issue of suggesting that skills-based means constructivism and knowledge-based means cognitivism, although I can see that they often do pair in this way, they don’t have to. However, where I think your argument loses its way more seriously is in the examples you have chosen to make your point. There is absolutely no reason why the approach you dislike has to focus on celebrity fluff whilst the approach you advocate happens to focus on one of the greatest people of the C20th; nor that the former spends half a lesson on Dicken’s dust jacket whilst the other digs deep into the text; nor does the one approach inevitably lead to entertainment, collaborative group work, and general faffing whilst the other courageously strides out on the disciplined path to knowledge and understanding. Why does a constructivist want a starter for engagement rather than recap? Unless you are suggesting that a constructivist thinks linking to previous learning is a waste of time, the implication is that the heroic cognitivist can get engagement through good teaching whilst the lame constructivist has to entertain the kids in the vain hope they might learn something. Perhaps, more fundamentally, those are pretty meaningless generic skills you have picked – what if the objectives where to develop the skills of identifying how an author develops character, or using P.E.A to show how a theme is developed (forgive my almost total ignorance of the teaching of English – please insert something pupils really have to do at GCSE if necessary). I could carry on contrasting the value-judgements in the pairs of lesson plans but this is starting to sound like an angry rant. I have plenty of sympathy with the argument for a knowledge-based curriculum but to try to ram your point home you have just bundled up all the teaching ideas that are currently fair game for a pot-shot and dumped them on your imagined constructivist. I’m disappointed – not your usual high standards, sir.

  7. neilatkin63 says:

    Thanks for this Joe – to me this is a useful article for a debate we need to have . To me we need to look at different subject areas as requirements are different.
    I have perhaps a unique perspective on the skills/knowledge debate. I teach the same lessons in physics in many different schools ( from the highest achieving and most privileged to the most disadvantaged ) I have found that generally their teacher has a much bigger influence than their school. Feynman said “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Often students only know the name of something and how to carry out procedures rather than really knowing. For example when I teach through the science of surfing I do a tablecloth pull – pull it slowly and the glass moves with the cloth, pull it quickly and it doesn’t – “why does that happen and what has it got to do with needing to paddle to catch a wave?”
    Most students are completely stumped by this. There is no correlation between how good the school is and how well they answer this. There is a massive correlation between how the teacher has taught this – knowing about impulse or knowing how to apply impulse. In science knowledge without being able to apply it is nothing. How do I know if they really know something? Get them to apply it in an unfamiliar context. For this I need both knowledge and skills.

    • Alex w says:

      Have to agree as a mathematician i find that knowledge and skills (application in novel situations) tend to go hand in glove, although the more i read around this stuff i get the feeling that the words being used may mean different things, and indeed i may be using them incorrectly. My gut feeling is that knowledge is socially constructed, but constructed in reaction to the world. As such it requires both sharing of social knowledge but also learning how we can build, interrogate and stretch it.

  8. I agree with dodiscimus et al, except I would go further: your examples of lessons are dishonest. It’s like a politician’s deliberate skew. It would have been far more interesting to show an actual skills-based lesson, the kind that people get all excited about, than the piece of tripe you offer up, as if that’s common. And, for the record, I’m not a constructivist.

    And, when all is said and done, you are every bit as absurd in your beliefs about “poor” children as the constructivists are:

    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.

    There is no “behind” and “catch up”. It’s not “poorer kids”. It’s “less intelligent kids”, who are disproportionately poor.

    Constructivism appeals because, done well (unlike that ludicrous lesson you offer up), it is an ideal method of engaging smart kids, who need to be prodded to think on their own rather than take the less cognitively demanding path of being told what’s right. (Which is not to say that being told doesn’t have its place.) The problem is that constructivism–whether used to discover skills or knowledge–is not effective with the lower half of the cognitive bell curve.

    You are implying that using knowledge-based instruction will help poorer kids catch up. You are wrong. What is true is that Engelmann’s direct instruction method, which is largely what our schools used for centuries, works better with lower cognitive ability students in reading certainly, in math usually, for elementary school kids. No research establishes that DI works to more effectively teach advanced math –or, indeed, cognitively advanced literature or history–to high school students on the lower half of the bell curve.

    This is an important distinction, because while you are correct about the potential flaws of a constructivist-based lesson, you are overlooking the downside of a DI lesson, particularly to a high school student who is bored out of his mind and knows better than you do that he will never understand this math.

    At the high school level, we are often dealing with kids who are cognitively incapable of grasping the required curriculum. How we teach them, and the value of our lessons, can’t be about catching up, since that’s never going to happen.

    • Bright kids. What do they need to be able to do their own thinking? Might just be some knowledge! Knowledge based instruction is not simply telling kids. It is much more than that. What makes kids less bright? Simple. Less knowledge to begin with.

      • As has been pointed out several times, constructivism vs. direct instruction is NOT equivalent to skills vs. knowledge.

        Not only is your response foolish on its face, but it ignores the fact that at no point did I say knowledge was unnecessary.

  9. feperry says:

    Reblogged this on tea and teaching.

  10. CristinaM. says:

    As Alex said above, you cherry pick strategies and content to support your beliefs. In as much as I appreciate your usual excellent analytic skills and use of solid research in backing up your ideas, I must confess this post is disappointing.
    Profound misunderstanding of constructivism leads to false debates like these.

  11. bt0558 says:

    I had to come back and post a further comment having just gotten involved in a twitter exchange.

    My views of people’s use and abuse of Bloom’s and/or Anderson and Krathwohl have not changed.

    However prompted by an exchange between David Didau and Heymisssmith I become involved and was shocked by what I found out, so shocked I will have to go away and rethink.

    I was sincerely under the mistaken impression that you had created the “skills” lesson and the knowledge lesson to make a point. However David is a well respected English teacher, author, blogger and consultant and he has explained otherwise.

    We all know of people (and when up against it we have occasionally) who have shown a DVD, done a card sort, created a mindmap for no real reason other than to keep kids occupied. However David and Joe assure me that lessons described by Joe as “skills” are delivered routinely. I imagine they are referring specifically to English lessons.

    Joe’s second offering, described I think as a “knowledge” lesson (that I would refer to as a lesson teaching mainly knowledge with a bit of skills) looks like the sort of lesson I would happily use any day. I would shift the focus either to more knowledge or slightly more skills but generally I think the structure is sound. I find it difficult to see how anyone could suggest too much teacher talk, it was engaging and had planty of review. Top notch.

    The “skills” lesson is one that in my view falls far short of any lesson that would be delivered by a professional educator and if such lessons are delivered routinely then that really is a scandal and if such lessons are described by Ofsted as satisfactory I can see why they moved the goalpost.

    If this is the sort of thing that the “knowledge” people talk about when they talk of “skills based leasson” then I misunderstood and I agree totally. I have obviously led a sheltered life.

    I regard myself as a balance of knowledge/skills person, and think that in arguing that “skills” is a bad idea people are developing a false dilemma. If “skills” lessons as you describe are routine then I no longer hold this view and see that we have been in agreement all along. That isn’t what I would regard as a lesson, let alone a “skills” lesson.

    • David Didau says:

      To my shame, Joe’s description (caricature?) of skills led lessons is representative of how I used to think I was supposed to teach a few years ago. (See this example of one of my very first blog posts This is essentially how school leaders in all the schools I’ve worked in train teachers how to teach because that’s what they believe Ofsted want to see.

      I guess because this was my everyday reality, it seemed hard to believe that others wouldn’t recognise it as ‘obviously true’. Clearly I’ve been guilty of some poor assumptions. If Joe’s post as achieved nothing else than get some people to recognise where skills led lessons ultimately lead then it was well worth writing.

      • bt0558 says:


        Thanks for taking the time to reply here. I really did start to think last evening that I had seen why I was misunderstanding the “knowledge” position.

        I can see that there is perhaps a continuum of lesson effectiveness and that Joe’s example 1 would be off the scale for me. I can see perhaps that he was taking an extreme position (caricature) and maybe and that my initial reaction was appropriate. Shame in some ways as I thought I was getting toward understanding the great imaginary divide.

        Joe’s post was let down I feel by him suggesting that this was a “skills” lesson rather than just a “bad” lesson and I am actually happy to argue with him about the use of Bloom’s when I feel A&K is better. I think you pointed to this in a dim distant blog also.

        Thanks for the opportunity to run through some of these issues, and I have started to question my view of the nature of many lessons taught in schools up and down the land which are outside my experience, although I can’t imagine there are too many “Joe example 1”, heaven help us all.

        “If Joe’s post as achieved nothing else than get some people to recognise where skills led lessons ultimately lead then it was well worth writing.”

        Tagging this one on the end was a little dishonest I feel, as there is no indication anywhere that I can see that suggests that example 1 is where “skills” lessons (if such a thing exists) will lead at all. Any lesson including “knowledge” ones can lead there if not appropriately planned.

  12. Ian Lynch says:

    Read the Childrens’ Learning in Science Project stuff of the late Professor Ros Driver of Kings College. Seems to me that a lot depends on the subject matter. These arguments see, to reflect the personal experiences of the authors in their particular areas of knowledge. Not much thinking out of the box here. Maybe symptomatic of a long entrenched education system polarised into subject silos.

  13. As always, Reality is more nuanced than theory (really, obviously so, given that theory is a model of reality). The reality of teaching in the UK is clearly vastly nuanced, as the responses to this blog and the recent twittersphere activity have shown. Here’s the point: will Joe’s blogs return to what they have consistently been in the past – interesting, well researched and persuasive? Not if they continue along this line….but, yes, if they stop comparing and contrasting ‘knowledge vs skills lessons’ and instead present how Joe would construct a series of lessons (etc) to achieve stated objectives (i.e. describe Joe’s current thoughts on pedagogy ‘in action’). This still leaves legitimate room to explore the balance between the development of knowledge and skills, and would be engaging and very constructive, in my opinion.

  14. Pingback: Books, bloggers & metablogs: The Blogosphere in 2013 | Pragmatic Education

  15. Pingback: 2013: lived, learned, loved! |

  16. Pingback: What Knowledge; What Skills? | docendo discimus

  17. Pingback: Free Thinking: I agree with Katharine | Pragmatic Education

  18. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  19. Pingback: The Science of Science Practicals: Are We Wasting Our Time? Pt. 3 – A Chemical Orthodoxy

  20. Pingback: Approaches to Teaching in a Knowledge Based Curriculum | Teaching@StBerns

  21. Pingback: How can concept-based learning help you teach and write better thesis statements? - The Quill Guy

Leave a Reply