Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & How They Work Together

There is an ongoing debate about knowledge versus skill acquisition. Knowledge is important. It always will be. I am not one of the people who argues that content and knowledge is no longer relevant in schools and that we should instead invest most of our energy in teaching skills. Skills are important, but I have never been convinced by arguments that one is more important than the other. Both are important and they work together. What would it mean to be a skilled accountant who knowns nothing about accounting. How about a skilled writer who had a vocabulary of 200 words? Or, what about a skilled doctor who knew nothing about the human body, illnesses or the latest research on treating illnesses? Even in non-academic areas, knowledge is important. How would a skilled basketball player do if she did not no the rules of the game or what offense or defense they were running? The skills versus content debate is and always has been flawed.

Some protest by arguing that content is less important today because you can search and find the content more quickly. That seems to miss the point. Facts and content are not just for knowing. They are for using. Every piece of content is a thinking tool. Every new bit of knowledge is a readily available resource for comparing, contrasting, analyzing, and creating something new. Do we really want doctors who have to consult WebMD in the middle of a surgery because they believe that knowledge and content are secondary to skills? Information literacy is clearly an important part of 21st century living but it does not negate the value of learning facts and information that we can mix and match in our minds to compete tasks, create, evaluate, and more.

I am creating a straw man, I realize. The arguments for skills over facts is largely a reaction to eras when people argued that content and rote memorization was almost the entire focus and there was little attention to skill acquisition. They are not arguing for skills alone as much as they are trying to address an imbalance between the two. My point is just that they go together.

Once we agree upon the fact that they go together, we still have some challenges to overcome. If we really do want to have learning organizations where skill acquisition is just as important as knowledge acquisition, then that calls for a different type of teaching, learning. It calls for different ways of thinking about assessment and monitoring progress. It also requires us to help teacher and learner both reframe goals and milestones.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Teaching and Learning

Simply presenting and illustrating facts and concepts is no longer adequate. When I describe the difference between modeling and coaching, I often use the example of teaching someone to throw a spiral. One way to do it is to stand on the field and have the person watch you throw a spiral. You explain the mechanics, things upon which to focus, etc. Yet, we all know that is not enough to teach someone to throw a spiral. They need the football in their hands and practice. This is where coaching comes into play. It can be helpful for a coach to be present, observing, giving feedback and guiding the person through deliberate practice.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Reframing Goals

We also want to make sure that our goals are written in a way that they focus upon both knowledge and skill acquisition. Sometimes we find learning organizations that talk about the importance of skill acquisition, but the goals are largely written in terms of facts and knowledge. With a little practice, you can usually write out goals that include both. Or, in instances where having the skill requires knowledge acquisition as well, they are naturally combined. You can’t do one without the other, so write the goal in a way that it is focused on the higher level element and include milestones or smaller goals that draw out the other elements.

Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & Assessment, Feedback and Monitoring Progress

Staying with the football example, who would be satisfied with a person who could pass a multiple choice and true/false test on how to throw a spiral? We want to see someone do it. For that we need authentic assessment, and and ways of monitoring progress that do not just celebrate new knowledge acquisition, but also looks at people’s skill development in the areas. Developing the skills is often a more challenging and rigorous process, and it also tends to take more time, thought, and energy to set up. Yet, if we have a knowledge-based assessment plan and the goals of new skill acquisition, this disconnect will hinder progress. We need alignment between the two. Both teacher and learner must recognize that, while measuring and assessing progress in knowledge acquisition may seem easier, we must find ways to emphasize progress in skill acquisition.

In Summary

Knowledge matters. Skills matter. Balancing and blending the two matters as well. This is true whether you are a school administrator, teacher, or independent learner. Understanding how these two support one another becomes a valuable bit of knowledge to help people grow as skilled learners.

5 thoughts on “Knowledge Versus Skill Acquisition & How They Work Together

  1. Michael Olneck

    I very much appreciate the spirit of this essay. I do think, however, that while Bernard laudably argues for the need for knowledge and skill to be combined, he has not done justice to either “knowledge” or “skill.” Quite honestly, “doing justice” would require an epistemological discourse entirely unsuitable for a short blog format. Nevertheless…

    I think Bernard has inadvertently confounded “information and content” with “knowledge.” This is apparent when he refers to the “facts v. skills” debate as the topic of discussion that he had earlier defined as the “knowledge v. skills” debate.

    In fact, Bernard implicitly refers to a more expansive view of knowledge when he writes “Every piece of content is a thinking tool. Every new bit of knowledge is a readily available resource for comparing, contrasting, analyzing, and creating something new.” I would argue, and doubt that Bernard would disagree, that this “something new” IS also “knowledge.” Indeed, I wish we wouldn’t call “knowledge” anything that can be referred to as “bits”

    In the context of Bernard’s argument this is not trivial. That is because he has focused on the kind of “knowledge” that can be “transmitted” and “acquired,” and not addressed the process by which “thinking” can be deliberately cultivated. His subject, rather, is how skills can be cultivated in the context of prior knowledge acquisition.

    My own view is that what I am calling thinking is what a sustained liberal arts education cultivates outside of a “competency based” framework. A topic for further discussion…

    The kinds of “skills” that Bernard uses for illustration, i.e. conducting surgery and throwing a football (illustrated inexplicably and unforgivably with a photo of Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, and not with a photo of Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers) are applied skills relevant to “real world” tasks. But there are other kinds of skills that cultivate “understanding” and even “appreciation” that are distinctively (although not exclusively) “academic.” My fear is that in the effort to cultivate “skills” that “employers need,” we will relegate those skills to the margins of higher education. (I understand that this last comment goes well beyond the scope of Bernard’s essay, but I think it is relevant.)

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the important contribution, Michael.

      I will start with your most harsh and important critique. In terms of my using a Saints image, that only demonstrates my intense commitment to neutrality in writing on this blog. Or, perhaps it was the first image I found that had copyright permissions for reuse.

      I agree with you that I was sloppy when it came to the use of “information” versus “knowledge in this post, so thank you for pointing out the important distinctions between the various words that I tossed about. I’ve often referred to the distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom in past blog posts; but I did not do so here. I even included a paragraph that described this distinction in my first draft of the post, but pulled it out at the last minute. I did that because I initially wanted to focus on a “content” versus skill acquisition discourse. That may have been too much of an oversimplification; and “knowledge versus skill” in the title was better for search engine optimization (a disturbing but candid disclosure, I realize). I could have also added an important dimension to the article by introducing distinctions between declarative and procedural knowledge.

      I opted for what seemed like simple illustrations. I could have certainly used illustrations associated with various academic skills, those of art critics, relational skills, those of ethnographic researchers, skills of a musician or composer, or even drawn from the types of “skills” that Mortimer Adler described with what he proposed were the highest skills in How to Read a Book. I seriously considered using an illustration associated with coping skills for people who struggle with anxiety and depression, but thought that they would detract from my main point.

      Regarding the comment about a “sustained liberal arts education” and that of a competency-based education, that certainly warrants more discussion. I personally crave such conversation. I both enjoy and am pained by the persistent civil war between these two perspectives that takes place in my brain. Like the US Civil War, it strikes me that the lines are not as clear as we might first think, and there are close relatives who find themselves in opposing armies. They are sometimes divided by important distinctions in values and ideals, but related nonetheless. Other times, it seems like their placement in one camp versus another was just a matter of where they grew up. Ideologically, they may well be related as well as kindred spirits.

  2. gmpotratz

    “Sometimes we find learning organizations that talk about the importance of skill acquisition, but the goals are largely written in terms of facts and knowledge. ” Amen, I see this all the time.

    Good article on importance of both ideas in education.

    • Robert Columbia

      Yes, this is a huge issue, perhaps the biggest one in competency evaluation. It has been seen in full force in the Information Technology (IT) world, where “competency based” credentials like the A+ are now nearly worthless because hiring managers know that while many people can memorize a list of port numbers or an elementary troubleshooting flowchart (is it plugged in? etc.), those people are not the same ones who can actually troubleshoot malfunctioning systems.

      What we need are more real-world competency evaluations. Remember all those toys and games (both physical and virtual) where kids could roleplay as a physician and perform simplified examples of real-world judgment calls? There was even a clinical video game for kids where they could learn about symptoms, diseases, and treatments and try not to let their virtual patients die. There is even now a video game (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) where the can try to perform attorney-like tasks, interviewing witnesses and examining evidence while looking for contradictions. Those are, or could become, EdTech initiatives! They need to be harder, sure, and receive thorough reviews from existing practitioners, but I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done.

      If we can get real-world, rigorous competency evaluations, this could help remove the “path versus outcome” controversy. Right now, we can’t be very sure that someone who managed to pass a medical licensure examination is actually competent to practice medicine, and so we “need” to continue requiring that candidates also earn an accredited medical degree. With a new, real world examination, we could rest assured that a non-degreed person could actually perform surgery, or diagnose properly.

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