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This post follows on from my last on skills versus knowledge in education. It is inspired by some comments made by Fergus Bissett (thanks Fergus).

This post follows on from my last on skills versus knowledge in education. It is inspired by some comments made by Fergus Bissett (thanks Fergus).


Fergus mentioned Rasmussen's framework as a way of thinking about the interdependence of skills and knowledge.


I am not familiar with Rasmussen’s work but the point seems to be this. When we are talking about transferrable skills, about kids being able to apply themselves creatively to novel challenges and to learn about the world for themselves, what we are talking about is the learning of rules.


But rules have one foot in the skills camp and one in the knowledge camp, both in terms of how they are derived  - from skilled interaction in the real world, or textbooks and the like? - and how they are applied.


What Fergus seemed to be suggesting was that knowledge and skills are intimately bound up with one another, that a pupil with no knowledge won't understand a rule properly and a pupil with no skills won't know how to apply a rule in specific cases (which makes it quite useless as a rule), nor how to adjust it in line with experience.


With regard to this, I suppose my view is not that we stop teaching knowledge-based subjects (a mad idea), nor that we teach a boring list of principles that are involved in skills (that would be counterproductive - teaching skills as dry knowledge!), but that the way we teach subjects should incorporate the teaching of skills.


So when teaching biology say, we might subtly emphasise the way that abstract models are applied, tested and modified to categorise and understand lifeforms, through the very learning of the particular features of the lifeforms (knowledge). Then we might get kids to apply the models themselves in project work, thereby learning a skill.


If we did this across subjects, kids would learn a set of transferrable skills for understanding the world based on certain general principles that are similar to one another. But we don't teach the principles, they simply emerge for the child through practice - that is, she grasps them for herself by learning how to apply them. And, through grasping (perhaps implicitly) that they are similar and often transferrable, she will be more likely to be able to be creative with their application. She will also be more able to choose which combination of general principles are most apt and in which areas.


One stumbling block here might be the kind of cognition people think is involved in applying general principles to novel cases. If one thought that rational deliberation in the conscious mind was key, then one might think teaching knowledge all important: one learns a list of key principles, weighs the pros and cons of whether they are apt, then applies them.


But that is not how the vast amount of cognition operates. A recent study showed that the ‘eureka moment’ of insight – something that occurs when kids learn to ‘think for themselves’ – is the conscious signal of a process of cognition that is largely unconscious.


Our unconscious or emotional brains are incredibly efficient supercomputers that can run parallel processes, cross-checking all sorts of associations, similarities, identities and differences between things at the same time. It is this powerful system that is involved in building knowledge – learning new things is a case of seeing patterns that are subtly different from those previously observed. Grasping these similarities and differences just is what it is to understand a piece of knowledge. So unconscious skills are vital to the very learning of knowledge that can be consciously asserted!


The way the emotional brain is honed is through training and experience – real-world repetitions of active engagement that inculcate capabilities. In other words, doing stuff or exercising skills.


This is not reinventing the wheel. Any good teacher will know that a ‘rounded’ education involves this approach of training and experience – skills that are subtly guided and implicitly grasped whilst absorbing knowledge.



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