Content? Skills? Or both?

Janet Downs's picture
Interesting debate in the Times Educational Supplement about the focus on subject content in the new national curriculum. One writer urges caution about a content-only curriculum, while the other says the academic route is essential. Despite the difference in emphasis, however, both writers stress that the best curriculum model highlights knowledge AND skills:

“Learning is of course about knowledge, but it is also about acquiring the skills that are necessary to enable and equip young people to be effective employees, citizens and lifelong learners. Subject content and learning skills should go hand in glove - it is not a question of "either or" but "both and".

“A rigorous academic core is not about teaching people history for the sake of it or languages they don't need, but developing skills that cross subjects and specialisms, skills that will be useful for all and in all walks of life.”
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 21:29

Yes, this is the key to me. Getting a balance between content and skills; an Aristotelian "golden mean". The current National Curriculum is ridiculously complex, and I believe undeliverable. So it does need to be reformed. I really feel we need more teachers to be involved in the process. These panels nearly always involve headteachers, but the classroom teachers on the ground are not involved.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 22:07

I think it's more than just the case thay they are both necessary. They are actually inseparable. Teaching intellectual skills without knowledge, or teaching knowledge without developing understanding and judgement, are not simply inadequate options; they are actually impractical. You need to engage with content to remember it, and you need to recall content to think effectively.

Jonathan Isworth's picture
Mon, 21/02/2011 - 13:56

I'd like to see more thinking applied here to differences between subjects. I'm firmly in the both/and camp for the content vs skills debate, but I'm also sure that there are differences between subjects in terms of proportion, even within different topics. I approach this as a science teacher, and I would suggest that science does require a larger degree of content than some other subjects. The issue is the objective nature of science; it's pretty much the defining feature that there are empirical, defined answers at school level. Although there are plenty of arguments and debates to be had in science about how much these answers may or may not be true, the debates require an understanding of the content to be approached in a scientifically consistent way. But I would not for a moment suggest that this proportion of content would work in other subjects.
The rancour over the failed APP experiment in science is still festering. Attempts to reduce science to a set of skills, which turned out actually to be as a necessity a set of prescribed actions did little but alienate science teachers and cost publishers a lot of money.

It appears from my side that the decisions over content/skill are being taken with a highly partisan view based around the decision maker's personal subject preferences which are then extended to all others.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 21/02/2011 - 15:10

Jonathan your final paragraph is very relevant. We need a system which takes the curriculum out of political control, but yet makes it accountable. The QDCA model didn't work; but some kind of curriculum council, which contains a real balance of teachers and relevant experts, is going to be needed if the new NC is going to be fair and workable. I liked the Lib-Dems idea of having an independent council in their manifesto, but apparently, apart from the Pupil Premium, none of their ideas are to be considered.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/02/2011 - 09:19

I agree with Andrew Old. Knowledge is essential BUT knowledge alone is not enough. When Bitzer, the star pupil in Dickens’ Hard Times, recites all he has memorised about a horse, he has thoroughly learnt the facts*, but he understands nothing. To Bitzer, and his teacher Mr M’Choakumchild, education is merely ingesting gobbets of knowledge to be spat out on demand. This requires no understanding or skills: no research, no interrogation, no analysis, no engagement with the subject, no collaboration with others, no applying that knowledge in novel situations. For all Bitzer's apparent “knowledge”, he may as well have been chanting words in a foreign language.

The teacher, Mr M’Choakumchild is replete with facts which “were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers”. But, as Dickens writes, “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

The question is: How far has the new national curriculum been inspired by the philosophy of M’Choakumchild? Has the balance swung too far towards the acquisition of a core of knowledge as an end in itself? If it is, will the UK be left behind by those countries who are incorporating skills into their national curriculums?

*Bitzer’s definition of a horse: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer." (Hard Times, Chapter 2).

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 14:37

The answer, Janet, is that we are nowhere near the levels of knowledge considered normal in nineteenth century education, let alone in Dickens' parody of it. We have had decades of reducing content, with the 2007 curriculum the most dumbed-down yet. Fear of Gradgrindism is, at the moment, akin to fear of dragons.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 24/02/2011 - 11:11

Dickens, of course, was using hyperbole in his critique of a fact-based curriculum. What the content of English education actually was in 1854 when Hard Times was published is difficult to discover. Forster's Education Act, which set the framework for elementary education from ages 5-12, wasn't passed until 1870. Angus Macpherson, in his 1854 essay "English Education", said this about the second phase of school education:

"during which parents and teachers should act in concert. During this period they should be initiated into the elements of knowledge, their bodily and mental powers should be gradually unfolded, and they should be trained to the practice of virtuous habits".

That seems to cover content, physical education, thinking skills and morality/ethics (possibly, unless Macpherson was only thinking about those habits which make one go blind).

(Macpherson's essay is available on Googlebooks)

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 24/02/2011 - 11:55

I’m not sure that English education has suffered decades of reduced content – my impression is that more content has been squeezed into the national curriculum. What is undeniable is that English education has suffered from decades of interference, particularly since the mid 1980s when the national curriculum was conceived. This constantly changing curriculum together with an obsession with targets, and schools being judged on these targets, has led to accusations of dumbing-down in examinations, fuelled by schools hoping to lift their league table position and exam boards offering allegedly easier examinations. Full Fact org says it is difficult to prove whether grade inflation exists:

but the BBC Radio 4 programme “More or Less” concluded that grade inflation does exist: (about 20 minutes in)

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