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.┬áBoth 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.