Knowledge vs. Skills – The 21st Century Debate

The American Association of Colleges and Universities stressed in its 2002 report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, that…
“the current emphasis on “factual recall” is a major barrier to success in college. Today’s college students, the report concludes, need to be “integrative thinkers who can see connections in seemingly disparate information and draw on a wide range of knowledge to make decisions.” *
This conclusion would seem to weigh in on the long-running debate in education over whether it is more important to teach content or skills to our students. However, what is meant here is not that skills should be taught in place of content, but that the emphasis on content over skills is problematic, because it is the skillful use of information/content that is the necessary end point. In effect, we are stopping short of where we need to be going, stopping at content – the foundaion of skill – and not moving effectively to the  higher level of using the content to do things, solve problems, etc.
By content we of course mean information, and by skills…well, this set is less clearly defined, and that is part of the problem in getting clarity over this issue. Let’s assume for the purpose of this argument that we are talking about a broad set of “soft skills’ that include collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, etc. The newly termed “21st Century Skills” do a good job of approximating the set of soft skills that most people speak of, however one has to be careful here because at least in the ISTE – NETS version, technology is so interwoven (for good reason) that many people are scared away.
The irony of the either-or argument, is that you cannot learn one without the other. The erroneous assumption by those pushing back against the “skills” idea is the assumption that by teaching skills in addition to content, you must displace large amounts of content, thus graduating students who know “less”. While this would seem to make sense on the surface, if done right, the opposite is actually true: teaching 21st Century Skills fully integrated into the content curriculum helps improve content learning, retention, and recall. (Why is this, and what is the proof? We’ll look at these questions next time)
So how do we teach 21st Century Skills integrated into the content curriculum in such a way that not only are the skills learned, but the content is learned better (“better” being defined as deeper retention and ability to recall / use in appropriate ways)?
Here is the key: to be taught successfully, 21st Century Skills must be given the importance of any other subject, and be taught and assessed just as explicitly as any other subject, with these differences:
1)  Unlike with content, skills must be learned and demonstrated by doing (although, again, content is learned better this way to)
2) 21st Century Skills cannot be taught as a seperate class. They must be fully integrated with all other curricula.
Let’s use the analogy of teaching someone how to hammer a nail. In this case the hammer and the nail are content. Learning what a hammer and a nail are does not equate to learning how to hammer a nail into a piece of wood. In this case, as in all cases, the skill is the ability to manipulate the content to do something, to build on the knowledge of what a hammer and a nail are, and use them to solve a problem, e.g. how to join two pieces of wood.
As we can see form this example, you must have a foundational content knowledge before you can learn a skill – you cannot learn how to hammer without knowing what a hammer and a nail are. And conversely, knowledge of  what a hammer and a nail are is greatly inmproved upon by actually using them.
So, we can teach content better – so that it is retained with a greater chance of being used to synthesize information to solve problems – by having students use it to solve problems when they learn it. Thus we have taught problem solving and at the same time we have taught the content.
Now, for the many teachers who say, “but we are already doing this”, I reply: “If you are not explicitly teaching and assessing these skills, you are not teaching the skill as well as you could be.” To do so, we must – again – get as explicit as we get with our content. We must explicitly:
1) name the skill
2) facilitate the learning of the skill
3) assess the skill (iteratively to facilitate the learning)

knowledge-skill

(This is part two of a thread, started by 21st Century Skills – Are they Neither? Though not necessary, you may want to ready that post first.)

A 2002 report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, title Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, finds that…

emphasis on “factual recall” is a barrier to success in college and that today’s college students, need to be “integrative thinkers who can see connections in seemingly disparate information and draw on a wide range of knowledge to make decisions.”

(I originally discovered this report in the EducationSector report, Measuring Skills for the 21st Century“, which is a recommended read.)

This conclusion would seem to weigh in on the long-running debate in education over whether it is more important to teach content or skills to our students. However, what is meant here is not that skills should be taught in place of content, but that the emphasis on content over skills is problematic, because it is the skillful use of information/content that is the necessary end point. In effect, we are stopping short of where we need to be going, stopping at content – the foundation of skill – and not moving effectively to the  higher level of using the content to do things, solve problems, etc.

By content we of course mean information, and by skills…well, this set is less clearly defined, and that is part of the problem in getting clarity over this issue. Let’s assume for the purpose of this argument that we are talking about a broad set of “soft skills’ that include collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, etc. The newly termed “21st Century Skills” do a good job of approximating the set of soft skills that most people speak of, however one has to be careful here because at least in the ISTE – NETS version, technology is so interwoven (for good reason) that many people are scared away.

The irony of the either-or argument, is that you cannot learn one without the other. The erroneous assumption by those pushing back against the “skills” idea is the assumption that by teaching skills in addition to content, you must displace large amounts of content, thus graduating students who know “less”. While this would seem to make sense on the surface, if done right, the opposite is actually true: teaching 21st Century Skills fully integrated into the content curriculum helps improve content learning, retention, and recall. (Why is this, and what is the proof? We’ll look at these questions next time)

So how do we teach 21st Century Skills integrated into the content curriculum in such a way that not only are the skills learned, but the content is learned better (“better” being defined as deeper retention and ability to recall / use in appropriate ways)?

Here is the key: to be taught successfully, 21st Century Skills must be given the importance of any other subject, and be taught and assessed just as explicitly as any other subject, with these differences:

  1. Unlike with content, skills must be learned and demonstrated by doing (although, again, content is learned better this way to)
  2. 21st Century Skills cannot be taught as a separate class. They must be fully integrated with all other curricula.

Let’s use the analogy of teaching someone how to hammer a nail. In this case the hammer and the nail are content. Learning what a hammer and a nail are does not equate to learning how to hammer a nail into a piece of wood. In this case, as in all cases, the skill is the ability to manipulate the content to do something, to build on the knowledge of what a hammer and a nail are, and use them to solve a problem, e.g. how to join two pieces of wood.

As we can see form this example, you must have a foundational content knowledge before you can learn a skill – you cannot learn how to hammer without knowing what a hammer and a nail are. And conversely, knowledge of  what a hammer and a nail are is greatly improved upon by actually using them.

So, we can teach content better – so that it is retained with a greater chance of being used to synthesize information to solve problems – by having students use it to solve problems when they learn it. Thus we have taught problem solving and at the same time we have taught the content.

Now, for the many teachers who say, “but we are already doing this”, I reply: “If you are not explicitly teaching and assessing these skills, you are not teaching the skill as well as you could be.” To do so, we must – again – get as explicit as we get with our content. We must explicitly:

  1. name the skill (thanks Angela Maiers)
  2. facilitate the learning of the skill (through guided doing)
  3. assess the skill
    Iteratively to facilitate the learning:
    -Identify and capitalize on strengths
    -Identify and correct or compensate for weaknesses
    (Thanks Robert Sternberg)

Coming soon: Is digital a new skill, or is it a new literacy?

One thought on “Knowledge vs. Skills – The 21st Century Debate

  1. Pingback: Teaching Skills | Edunautics

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