Should we Compromise on Knowledge and Skills?


Yesterday, the world awoke to the incredibly sad news that Nelson Mandela, one of history’s greatest leaders, had passed away. I read through the tributes on Twitter and the obituaries on various news websites as I ate my breakfast, and thought a lot about his legacy and what the world learned from him. On my drive to work I spent some time thinking about how I could approach it with my students during the day’s lessons. I was pleased to hear that the school would be holding a minute’s silence for him during the day, and that all staff had been given a small note to read out during tutor time.


I started by asking all my classes what they knew about Mandela. Some of the replies I received were very worrying: “was he in Eastenders?” “He was the first black man in Africa.” “He was a terrorist”. The best response I got was “He went to prison”. I was shocked and appalled at the answers I received: how was it that these young people had made it to years 9 and 10 without having any real notion of who Nelson Mandela was? I’m sure I wasn’t the only teacher to be surprised by the tragic ignorance displayed by my students yesterday morning.


And then I started teaching my lessons. First up, year 10 exam revision. They aren’t taking the English Language exam until the end of year 11, but with it now being much higher stakes than it used to be (it is now worth 60% of the final grade instead of 40%), we are prepping them early to give them the best chance of getting the best possible grade. We place a lot of emphasis on using past exam papers to teach the kids the skills they need to pass the exam. And so we started looking at an article about Amy Winehouse. I always find this extremely challenging. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I go through the exam papers with them, they can still find themselves stumped when they come across texts they know little about.


I feel a bit stuck. I don’t think that teaching to these tests is a good thing. I think that my pupils would be far better served by learning about some of the greatest leaders and thinkers to have walked the earth, to learn their teachings and understand how they overcame great barriers and made the world a better place. But we rarely do this. Some excellent teachers (both primary and secondary) do think very carefully about how students can get a balance between good quality content and processes for passing the exams. However, there is currently no system in place to ensure that all kids get such a balanced diet. As I’m sure most teachers would agree, the test becomes the curriculum in most classrooms. What we teach and the amount of time we spend teaching it will be determined by the test we are working towards.


In principle, I think the idea of teaching to the test is fine, as long as the test is good. But the English language GCSE papers are fundamentally flawed. To my mind, there are two major problems with them: firstly, we only ever teach pupils a process, rather than any meaningful knowledge, and secondly, the test does not contribute towards their cultural literacy.


Teaching another Process


The exam is underpinned by the philosophy that skills are transferable. The idea is that we teach kids a process for analysing or inferring information from a text and they can then reapply that process to other texts. This sounds perfectly plausible, but as several thinkers and studies have shown, this is not always the case. Skills, such as analysis, inference and evaluation aren’t transferable. They depend on knowledge. So what ends up happening when we try to teach these skills? We end up teaching a process, one that pupils can only replicate if they have the requisite knowledge. Such processes aren’t skills at all: students simply follow an algorithm to demonstrate their understanding of a text, and will often fall at the first hurdle. We have arrived at a situation where children can tell you in intricate detail how to construct a PQE paragraph, but think that Nelson Mandela was in a soap opera.  Surely somebody has to stand up and say that something is amiss here.


The nature of the questions in the English language exam means that we teach neither skills nor knowledge: instead we teach a mindless process. Last year, my year 11s really struggled in a mock exam despite the fact that we had practiced this process over and over. The article they were asked to analyse was about a drought, and several members of the class did not know what this word meant, leaving them completely stuck. There was no way any process of ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘making inferences’ would assist them in this situation. They had been made powerless by a lack of knowledge and an over-emphasis on the process required for answering the question.


Cultural Literacy


Aside from rendering students incapable in the middle of an exam, the focus on processes over content has other, more troubling ramifications. The content of the exam does not help to promote cultural literacy at all. E.D. Hirsch states that ‘to be culturally literate means to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.’ I am writing this post as a response to the tragic ignorance I experienced in my classrooms yesterday. It was heartbreaking to hear that my students had very little understanding of the things Mandela did; what he did for people in South Africa; his integrity and determination, his willingness to forego his own freedom for the sake of his beliefs and his country. These are vital messages, messages that our pupils need to know. It made me wonder what else they don’t know. It made me question whether they were ‘culturally literate’ at all, and if they weren’t, then somebody should be shouting from the rooftops that we need to do something about it, as it is ‘an unacceptable failure of the part of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.’ I wouldn’t call myself inept, but I would say that I am forced to teach to a test that is bad for my students.


The opportunity cost that comes from spending time practicing a mundane process with a range of supposedly engaging texts means that we spend less time teaching kids the best ideas that have been thought and written.  Kids get to read about Tinie Tempah, Michael Caine, Johnny Depp, Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, but rarely learn about history’s greatest leaders, or read the stories that have gripped and changed the world. Of course, these things do get taught in some classrooms, if the teacher has the desire to do so, but because this is not a part of the exam, many do not. There are countless children across the country that spend their English lessons applying the same processes to a series of different texts that pander to their teenage interests, teaching them virtually nothing about the people, events and literature that made the world what it is today.


Joe Kirby wrote a splendid blog this weekend about the importance of not letting the ‘knowledge/skills debate’ go just yet. I can only echo his sentiments here. It is vital that knowledge does not get swallowed up in compromise. David Didau argues that “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled”- and I agree that sometimes having strong principles and not being willing to compromise is okay. Our pupils are at the mercy of a poor curriculum that teaches them nothing but mindless processes, and our teachers are compelled to teach it for fear of not giving their pupils the tools they need to pass a content light exam. I don’t think this is good enough, and this is something that we should not allow ourselves to drop. The knowledge/skills debate may have been hanging around for a while, but until the children of this country are given the opportunity to be culturally literate and for the most disadvantaged to rival their wealthier peers, we should accept no compromise at all.

28 thoughts on “Should we Compromise on Knowledge and Skills?

  1. I know there are all kinds of arguments against “why can’t kids just google it” – so understand that I’m not saying this as a generic argument as school as a concept….BUT!….in the examples you give – a student not knowing the word drought, or not knowing who Nelson Mandela is – well, why *can’t* they look it up? I mean, if students were in a situation where they could look up words in a dictionary in exams then we would be sorted. I use a few times most days (I use even more) to check that I am using words correctly. Likewise, if you go to an obituary of Nelson Mandela in the various newspapers of the last few days, you will find the information you need about his life.

    It’s not like they need lots of extra information. They have the word drought right there on the page. They can see the word Nelson Mandela when they turn on the tv. (Helpfully, and just in case people were googling the wrong one, we also appear to have started adding his middle name to everything). So, it’s not like there’s a whole heap of extra sifting needed.

    Also, while I am also not trying to go for a “everything is transferrable” argument, it surely must be true that if you teach people to look up obituaries, and analyse them, (of anyone – Amy Winehouse included) then next time they are looking for information they will know that this is a place to go.

    Following this maxim we wouldn’t need to handwring every time a child doesn’t know a leader who recently died, the kids would instead simply turn to the obits.

    • It’s not so easy as simply to say look it up. Willingham’s ‘why don’t students like school’ showed why we need information in our long term memories not in a dictionary. The gcse English Language exam is so poor because teachers can only teach processes and not facts, so students with low cultural literacy will always struggle.

      • Ben – I understand that it’s not that simple, and I know Willingham well, hence my first sentence. BUT, in these specific instances, you actually *could* just look it up. It self-evidentially must be true that sometimes you *can* ‘just look it up’ in a dictionary, otherwise we reduce ourselves to saying that we must know everything before we can learn anything from a dictionary – which is silly.

    • I agree that you can look up who Nelson Mandela was. However, if you don’t know who he is then you are also unlikely to know about apartheid, the ANC, the colonial history of South Africa or perhaps even where South Africa is. I remember being very confused about the Boers; they were of Dutch origin but SA was a former British colony so how did that work?

      A lack of background knowledge makes the information that you find very hard to interpret. When *you* use a dictionary, it is likely that you are just checking something that you already thought and the definition that you find is likely to make perfect sense. The point is that you need knowledge to acquire knowledge. You can’t *just* look things up unless you have the ability to understand what you find.

      • Surely, though, once you start to read about Nelson Mandela those things start to become apparent – particularly if what you are reading is well written. Otherwise, I am again afraid that we back ourselves into a corner of saying that we must know everything before we can understand anything.

        Also you *can* just look the word drought up in a dictionary. In fact, let’s do that…. dictionary,com has it written as “a period of dry weather, especially a long one that injures crops”. (Interestingly it doesn’t say anything about lack of water, which is what *I* thought it was – seemingly, that’s not it’s *actual* definition!). But…how much does someone need to know? They might need to know what crops are – though they could look that up (“products of the ground, e.g. wheat crops”) – but really, it’s not a concept that you need to have lots of prior knowledge to gain. If you know food grows in the ground, and you know what weather is, you’re good to go.

        On the broader point of you need knowledge to acquire knowledge, you are of course right. This is why I am not advocating a general “look it up” argument against teaching any knowledge. I just think we could indefinitely hand-wring over random things kids don’t know (e.g. the word drought), and so we need to be a bit more specific if we are to avoid the “know everything to know anything” problem.

    • Erm.. yes. But this is all answered by Hirsch’s original thesis; a thesis which sits behind such arguments. I think he said that you need to understand something like 90% of a text before you can understand the text as a whole i.e. you need to know about most of it in order to learn from the bits you don’t know. Nobody is arguing that you can’t learn anything at all by looking things up so this is not a good point of attack.

      What Hirsch would suggest, and what I would concur with, is that there has been a laissez-faire attitude to knowledge in teaching. It has been seen as an incidental rather than something to be systematically built. He also does not suggest some endless iteration; the argument that his critics seem to be responding to when they make the ‘where does it all end?’ post. His prescription for knowledge is ambitious but contained; that which is required to make sense of the New York Times. Presumably, this is therefore 90% of the knowledge that the New York Times writers assume of their readers – with the other 10% available to be learnt. Now, I am fine for people to dispute that the New York Times is the right subject for this definition, particularly in the UK. However, I do think you need *something*. Otherwise, like me, you end up learning about the Vikings at school about five times but never anything about the English Civil War. This is a real problem.

      With the specifics of Mandela’s obituary, I wonder where you assume that it is easier to learn about apartheid etc. than it actually is; the curse of the expert. The child who thinks that Mandela was the first black man in Africa is going to struggle here. Of course, a nice middle-class child who talks about the news with her parents won’t have too much trouble. And hence the class divide is deepened and extended.

      • My original comment was, quite specifically, not an attack against Hirsch. It was about the particulars of this blog. I’ve written before about how I have no issue with Hirsch (in fact, I like him and his arguments!). I also agree you need to learn *something*, I’m just not convinced we need to be heartbroken that a 13 year old didn’t yet know who Mandela was, or that they had to look up the word drought.

      • I think that Hirsch is relevant to specifically this example and I think you underestimate the scale of the task of knowledge building. That’s why I linked to the curse of expertise paper.

      • I really don’t underestimate it. That’s why I said, at the very beginning of my comment, that this wasn’t a general argument about “looking things up” in place of teaching knowledge.

      • What should a student know at any specific point in their education? Regardless of the agreed curriculum content there will still be lots of stuff that isn’t covered and hence some students don’t know. It seems a bit of a distraction to seize on any example of kids not knowing stuff as evidence that education isn’t working. The debate is boiling down to: what should students know?

        Anecdotal: when I was a kid I had few books at home, but used text books, a dictionary and an old set of encyclopaedias. There’s tonnes of stuff I don’t know (now), but my educational outcomes were good. What was my meta-learning?

  2. Also, an additional question…,I found it absolutely heartbreaking at Oxford that most people in my cohort had no knowledge of the Battle of Orgreave.

    Is that a topic that you would put under ‘cultural literacy’ too? What makes Mandela cultural literacy but Orgreave not? (genuine question, I’m trying to get my head around this a bit more…)

    • I think, for what it is worth, that if a child can just look it up, then looking it up is fine. The problem is that within the material they look up there could be more material they do not know so have to look that up. And even worse they might think they know something and carry on without looking it up. I’ll look up the battle of Orgreave as though I were a year 9 child, about my level for knowing about battles, and see what I would struggle with, if anything.

      • But…there will always be things that we don’t know and need to look up. I mean, to *fully understand* Orgreave you would need to know about picketing, coking plants, orgreaves, workers conditions, strikes, mining, ethical duties of care on the police, etc. But, if you pick any one of those and went to look it up you would find other things embedded in there that you would ideally know to make *full* sense of it. Which goes back to my point about needing to know everything in order to know anything. At some point, we must assume (and accept) imperfect knowledge and then work from there.

    • …and here’s the crux of the issue….too much stuff to acquaint the students with….you can see where this all started: what if we want people to be able to pick up any article and deconstruct it to work out what it really means….what skills would they need? Because the range of subjects in the articles would be too wide to equip them with specific knowledge….

      Perhaps the exam is nonsensical; I recall my Eng Lang O-level requiring the writing of fiction essays, or some such……

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura. You highlight a really good point. Firstly, what knowledge is necessary in order to be able to ‘look it up’? and secondly, how or who should decide what contributes to ‘cultural literacy’. Although I don’t think I have the perfect answer, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. It’s a bit long winded to discuss here, but you have inspired me to write about this more thoroughly. I intend to blog about this next weekend so that I can explain what my thoughts are.
      It’s one thing offering a deconstruction of the problem, and quite another to propose a workable solution. I will have a crack at it over the week and publish next weekend- it would be great to hear your thoughts on it then.

      thanks for the comment,

      Katie 🙂

  3. I ripped up my lesson plan for Friday p 1 and 2, Y8. Threw a load of facts about Mandela at them, via Direct Instruction, demanded they synthesised them into their own news report. (Lesson plan had been to develop a news report on a mystery that has been unfolding (developed by a variety of staff) this Half Term in school, so I stuck to skills outcome, changed context. ) They were gripped by the facts, but completely incapable of using the recently acquired facts on Mandela to develop a news report.
    Facts will be gone by now.
    Still glad I did it, and moving towards idea of a coherent knowledge curriculum for KS3 that makes sense, that is learnt by application (and therefore development) of skills. Presently it seems to be the other way round in some parts of KS3 curriculum.

  4. Coherent knowledge indeed. A colleague of mine attended a Science CPD. They came back stunned to find out if students answered a question correctly it would be marked wrong because that’s not how the exam board want us to teach it.

  5. The new GCSE English Language subject content addresses this:

    “GCSE English language is designed on the basis that students should read and be assessed on high-quality, challenging texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Each text studied must represent a substantial piece of writing, making significant demands on students in terms of content, structure and the quality of language. The texts, across a range of genres and types, should support students in developing their own writing by providing effective models. The texts must include literature and extended literary non- fiction, and other writing such as essays, reviews and journalism (both printed and online). Texts that are essentially transient, such as instant news feeds, must not be included. The number and types of texts, and their length, are not prescribed.”

    Click to access GCSE_English_language.pdf

    • It does, which is one of the reasons I am feeling much more optimistic about the new curriculum than the current one. But I think a lot still depends on the format of the questions. At present, the same questions are asked each year with different content. This leads to the approach I outline above: that of simply teaching a supposedly transferable process. The problem we have is that the majority of teachers still think that skills are directly transferable, and will seek to give students a strategy for attacking the exam questions, rather than teaching content. What we really need is a robust assessment system that measures the depth of knowledge and understanding of the content we want them to learn. So although the new curriculum stands firm on the quality of content, what matters most of all is the quality of the assessments. The assessment becomes the curriculum, so it must ensure that teachers have to teach content. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but I think mastery assessment might be a good place to start. That combined with sensible rubrics that do not fall foul of the ‘adverb problem’.

      Thank you very much for commenting.

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