Licensed to Skill!

Recently, I have seen the term skill-based curriculum a lot. But what does it mean? I found various definitions in my search, but broadly speaking it is about learning by doing, and thus developing skills that can be developed in real-life situations, as distinct from a conventional curriculum, which is often called ‘knowledge-based’, and is often depicted as being purely theoretical, ‘bookish’ was one term I saw, and has only ‘limited success’.

Now, I am certainly not arguing that we don’t need more emphasis on ‘doing’ and applicability, especially to create an educational system that fosters and values a variety of talents and skills, not solely the academic. There are many forms that intelligence and ability can take, and this must be factored into any education system. Only by doing this can uniqueness and individuality be valued and, therefore, grown. But I do not think that knowledge-based and skills-based are diametric opposites. In fact, I think this is a false dichotomy. The two should be viewed as inextricable and I don’t believe the education system I have just outlined can happen without a measure of either. This is not just because a system should seek to be inclusive and incorporate both knowledge and skills. I genuinely don’t think implying at best a division between knowledge-based and skill-based education, at worst portraying them as somehow opposed or completely different, is in any way helpful, and could even be harmful. Yes, theory and the practical skill might be different, but they are certainly not separate. Rather, they are parts of the same process.

Do read the following article about the importance of integrating both across the primary curriculum. It is excellent. The map reading example exemplifies my point. How can you read a map (a skill) without first knowing what a map is and how to read the symbols? You may have the makings of a fine Carry On or Monty Python scene, but you will not get accurate map reading.


Part of the problem, I think, lies in the association between knowledge-based and an all-too-entrenched view of education as a means to an end, getting a job and earning, having gone through the motions of exams. However, a knowledge-based curriculum does not have to be about the drudgery of learn and churn.

Take the following way of looking at the connection between theory and practice, which is not unlike the map reading example. The discipline being discussed is medicine. I summarise.

i) Theory of disease.

ii) Inspection and diagnostics.

iii) Application and treatment.

A perfect illustration of the connection between theory and skill-based: theory, practice in applying knowledge and testing the theory, then successful action and application.

I have also read a similar division applied to the writing of history:

i) Reading previous accounts, information gathering, organisation

of material.

ii) Verification, travel, and enquiry.

iii) Review of events

And this could be applied in the teaching of history.

i) Learn the basics of an event or period.

ii) Further enquiries, test original evidence, critically question the

accepted view.

iii) Revisit and review.

Critical reflection on an accepted view, critical questioning, deconstruction, accompanied by active enquiry and practice, were the bread and butter of Socrates’ approach and one we should heed and employ.

The above, however, is not Socrates, although I am confident that he would have approved. The above is Polybius, the Greek historian. He wrote a detailed and analytical history of the rise of Rome across the Mediterranean, and, as we see above, made taxing demands of the would-be historian.

Now, Polybius certainly was not giving a blueprint for education. However, he has certainly outlined a rigorous process that employs both knowledge acquisition and critical thinking. I think, moreover, it is highly applicable to the educational setting and process.

We start with the learning and knowledge; enquiry and critique (skills); application and review, even problem solving (further skill development). We also need to be very clear about what we understand by the term skill. It is very easy to think of this in terms as something that is purely practical, and thus that a ‘skills-based’ curriculum is solely about equipping the young for life’s problems. However, this is a very narrow conception of skill and not the most useful one if we are talking about education. Skills can be and should part of what I think is actually the most important aspect education. Yes, it is about equipping and strengthening; it is also pleasure, pleasure in learning, expanding, exploring, honing, and growing. One’s gifts and passions must be allowed to fly. This requires both knowledge and skill, reinforcement, practice of both.

A talented artist might have innate talent, but will certainly benefit from investigation of different techniques, knowledge of different painters, although they must be allowed to develop their own style. The keen craftsman may have a natural aptitude for wood carving, sculpting, but the skills of different tools and techniques will allow then to grow and develop. The geographer who learns the theory of mapping, geological surveying, town-planning, must apply this by their own investigation, data-gathering, and assessment. The theory gives a framework for developing skills and sharpening them, and also identifying where improvement and practice are needed. Languages obviously have the speaking component, which is essential for the development of linguistic usage and application.

Where does English literature come in? Language appreciation, language usage, self-expression, an eye for analysis, which is applicable beyond the characterisation of Lady Macbeth. Classics, my own fine subject. Well, it’s already given us a method for uniting skills and knowledge-based learning. Content-wise: attention to detail and logical thinking from the languages, critical thinking from history and philosophy, an awareness of surroundings from archaeology, perspective from learning the ancient origins of science, and one of the most fantastic lessons in being human imaginable.

What are the ills we want the young to reflect upon and fight against? Poverty, inequality, conflict, prejudice? We also want them to reflect them on what really matters in life. Plenty of sources to learn about, plenty of food for thought about concerns which preoccupied them then and which preoccupy us still. Why are they still issues? You cannot help solve them, if you don’t have some idea of how these situations occur and are perpetuated. Moreover, if we want the younger generations under our tutelage to aspire to change the world for the better, they don’t just need to know the practicalities of spreading opportunity, improving living conditions. They need to know why.

I hope in the above article I have shown that we not only don’t need to see knowledge-based and skills-based learning as separate or opposed entities, we also shouldn’t. Both are parts of our natural curiosity: we want to know what happened, we want to make sense of what happened or is happening, we want to question and discover for ourselves.

You cannot lose one and fully achieve the other.

Don’t let’s throw the baby out with the bath water.

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