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.

Getting Good at Getting Good #deliberatepractice

In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Phil Conners, a less than pleasant weatherman, finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. The movie tells the story of how this man used this strange experience to learn. He learned more about a special women in his life. He learned to play the piano. He learned how to become a good person. This is a comedy, so he also takes advantages of the situation to make more than a few careless decisions and take risks that he would have never done before. After all, he had a daily “do over” regardless of the outcome.

My favorite scene in the movie is the piano scene. He is in on stage playing these impressive jazz riffs on the piano, something he couldn’t do the “day” before. It was a simple but brilliant reminder about how we get good at things. We practice. We do it over and over again. The moment we start to talk about “being good” at something, the conversation often turns to the nature versus nurture debate. Some people are just born musically gifted. Others are not. Or maybe it is math, basketball, sales, leadership, listening, conducting ethnographic research, teaching, photography, or starting a successful business. I don’t deny the role of genetics. It is just that the vast majority (as in the 99.999999%) of people don’t become world-class in any of these things on the basis of genes alone. For that, we need lots of practice.

When I think about people from my life who have become truly exceptional in their field or discipline, I see an obvious pattern. Not only are these people who were devout about practicing and refining their skills in this one impressive area, they so often wired their brains to think about many areas of life in the same way. These are people who learned the benefit of practice and developed the mindset that they could get better at pretty much anything through practice and persistence, whether it was gardening, playing an instrument, playing chess, an athletic pursuit, playing cards, home decorating, or fixing cars. They set a goal, practiced, and modeled this wonderfully deliberate, thoughtful, reflective approach that showed a commitment and intent on improving.

People get really good at something through a process that is simple but profound, something that we can easily doubt or forget, only to find ourselves regretting it years later. We get good through deliberate practice. Both of those words are critical. We all know that practice is important, but that lesson doesn’t come to life until we experience the benefits of practice and reap the rewards. It isn’t just practice. Bad practice is a great way to stay bad at something. That is where the first word is so important, “deliberate.”

Interestingly, the classic article about deliberate practice was first publish in 1993, the same year that Groundhog Day hit the theaters. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer published The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. The article starts:

The theoretical framework presented in this article explains expert performance as the end result of individuals’ prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external constraints. In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. Analysis of expert performance provides unique evidence on the potential and limits of extreme environmental adaptation and learning.

This is not mindless practice and repetition. It is deliberate. The structure of the practice matters. An example in the Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer article has to do with handwriting. I’ve been writing for a long time, but it still looks like chicken scratch. It isn’t enough that I’ve been doing it for years. If I want to drastically improve the quality of my handwriting, that will require deliberate practice that is structured in a way that will help me improve. Sometimes that comes from an expert coach or mentor. It might develop as I watch and systematically learn from others. It can happen in several ways. What is important is that it moves from simple experience and repetition to something more intentional, systematic, and structured in a way that results in increased performance over time. Things like feedback and reflective practice become important, allowing me to learn from my experiences and to improve upon past performances. As such, the article notes four important elements of practice: motivation that results in attending to the task(s) and extending the effort necessary to improve,  practice that accounts for prior knowledge and skill (different types of practice for different levels of experience and background are often important), frequent feedback about the quality of the person’s practice, and repetition. Put these four together and we get deliberate practice.

If I were starting a new school, business or any organization; I would want to fill it with teachers or employees who’ve been poisoned by the joy and addiction of deliberate practice. I want people who knows what it takes to get good at something, and they know about it from direct experience. I’m especially interested when I see a person whose done this in several unrelated domains. This demonstrates to me that they know how to learn something new. As long as I’m convinced that they are committed to getting good at what we are doing in the school or organization, and I see a track record of learning to get good at things, I see promise.

It is popular these days to create top ten lists of important skills for young people in the 21st and 22nd century, but I’m not going to give a full list of ten. I’ll just start with one. A powerful 21st century skill is getting good and getting good at something. Perhaps this is a bit too simplistic, but I might even be willing to drop my list of 21st century skills down to five if I can make this one of them. Imagine what would happen if we set aside long lists of standards and outcomes for a handful of life-changing skills like this. What would happen if we had learning organizations that nurtured young people who were world-class at becoming really good at things…at anything they set their mind to doing?

This is not a simple task. You don’t get really good at something in a semester, maybe not even a year or four years. So our understanding of time and pace might have to change. Becoming world-class is usually a multi-year, even a decade or longer task. Also, the four conditions for deliberate practice are not easily dropped into many traditional schools and classrooms. There are policies, practices, and traditions that stand in the way. Perhaps that is why so many people develop their life’s passions and pursuits beyond the walls, confines and hours of the school day. They do it in areas where they can engage in long-term deliberate practice.

This is not just an important attribute for formative education. I consider this an important social good when we are talking about adult education, workforce development, and addressing skills gaps in society as well. Workforce development divorced from personal development may address immediate needs in industry along with immediate needs for a paycheck by the worker. However, what happens when that task is no longer in demand? That person risks being out of a job. That is why I contend that the most humane approaches to workforce development helps people achieve specific job skills, but also offers them guidance on developing life skills that will allow them to thrive in a workplace of constantly changing demands for skills. That is why we invest in helping people discover the skill (and joy) associated with using deliberate practice to get good at something new. Without such a skill, I’ve seen too many people become bitter, felling trapped and disenfranchised,  overwhelmed and at the mercy of a single employer. If I truly value human agency, then my vision for education has to include helping people learn the “secret” of becoming skilled.