Revisiting the Knowledge/Skill Ratio in School

A young woman studies education for four years in college. She graduates and struggles to teach a class of students?

A psychology professor teaches about positive relationships, but has difficulty applying these ideas in his personal life.

A student gets high marks in geometry class, but struggles to build a simple bookshelf, complete a straightforward woodworking project, or make the adjustments necessary to hit a shot in billiards.

A football fan knows the game inside and out, but still can’t manage to throw a spiral. 

I can love movies and music, but not be able to make an engaging 5-minute video, sing in tune, or play an instrument.

A business professor teaches about how to write a business plan but never started or ran a successful business.

We’ve all experienced these types of distinctions. We’ve seen them in others, and if we are honest and self-reflective, we’ve seen them in ourselves. We know about things, but we lack skill with them.

That opening list gives examples of people with knowledge in an area, but potentially a low level of skill. We all know that learning about something is not the same as learning to do something. Each requires a different mindset and process. I suspect that this is part of why some critique higher education. It is why we don’t allow people to conduct brain surgery after sitting in a class, reading a bunch of books, and passing paper tests. It is also why much professional development in education falls short.

I love knowledge. I’m one of those people who delights in discovering largely unknown facts, and exploring novel concepts…even when they don’t seem to have much relevance to the rest of life. Furthermore, I am not one to propose that education should be light on content. Content matters.  Depth of knowledge can lead to depth of insight. And yet, I’m increasingly convinced that the knowledge/skill ratio needs to be revisited in much of formal education.

It is one thing to learn about historical facts. It is another to learn these facts and also learn how to use history to think, make decisions, and analyze current events.

It is one thing to memorize the rules of grammar and a robust vocabulary. It is yet another to apply this knowledge to craft multi-model messages.

It is one thing to learn about statistics. It is another to use statistics to solve real world problems, conduct research, or judge the validity of research reported in the media.

It is one thing to learn about music. It is another to sing and play an instrument.

it is one thing to study a foreign language in a class, but a largely different thing to live and speak with people in that language.

We study to remember knowledge. We practice to cultivate skill, and I suspect that more skill-based learning in school would result in increased student competence and confidence. It would address criticisms about school being disconnected from “the real world.”

This is not some argument for replacing the liberal arts with strictly vocational training. This applies to the liberal arts or the humanities as much as applied fields. We don’t just read and study poetry. We learn to write it, to recite or perform it. The same goes for the learning music, languages, math skills, theatre, historical and philosophical thinking, citizenship, fitness and health, art and great literature. Simply gaining knowledge about these things is like visiting a lifeless museum of knowledge, but experiencing them “in the wild” calls for skill development.

Some argue that teaching the knowledge is foundational. Once the learner has the knowledge, the skill can be developed at a later time. There is an important truth in this claim, but I also see three problems if we take it too far. First, learning knowledge entirely apart from any skill development often leads to a low motivation to pursue the skill at a later time. Second, skill development requires a different type of learning. Third, while basic knowledge is sometimes an important prerequisite to skill development, deeper insights and understandings often do not emerge until we reach a certain level of skill. Skill acquisition provides experiences and access to perspectives that remain hidden to someone who is just learning about a subject. For these reasons, learning organizations are wise to revisit the percentage of time spent on teaching knowledge versus skill development.

When I look at most lists of award-winning teachers, I find that they usually teach applied, skill-based subjects; or they invest a significant part of their time helping students develop skills, not just knowledge. Skill development is difficult, time-consuming, but it is also rewarding and easier to see progress.  If we want to help students grow in competence and confidence, I suspect that changing this knowledge acquisition / skill development ratio is a helpful starting point.

This is not a new concept, but it remains something that we can overlook in our schools and other learning organizations. Or, we largely focus upon “skills” that have little relevance outside of a school setting. These are the types of mistakes that lead to disinterested or dissatisfied learners, frustrated educators and administrators, and communities questioning the relevance of modern education. It is also something that can be relatively easily addressed by adjusting the knowledge/skill ratio…helping people learn to do alongside learning to know and remember.

Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Revisiting the Knowledge/Skill Ratio in School”

  1. ralphsherman

    Your posts are always so provocative. May I add that what are the “unintended skills” that students learn throughout their 12 to 16 years in the mainstream educational system?. How about; 1) never questions authority 2) only speak when you are spoken to 3) being on time is more important than relationships 4) knowledge is absolute 5) offering more than is expected of you is going to cause trouble. These adaptive conformity behaviors are drilled into every child without consideration as to what kind effect they will have on the adult which they become. These skills only prepare them for submissive roles in society. Where are the leaders and creative people going to learn how to produce something of socially redeeming value if they held back by the conform to authority or be punished mindset that is in some of our public school system today.

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