One of the many poorly-framed, point-missing ‘debates’ that regularly plague contemporary education goes something like this: ‘should education be focused primarily on teaching knowledge, or on developing students’ skills?’ Even attempts to reconcile the (apparent) ‘knowledge .v. skills’ opposition with reasonable-sounding appeals to its being ‘a bit of both’ miss the main point – namely, that the whole debate itself betrays a narrow and reductive view both of knowledge and of the skills practices of knowledge production (practices which themselves entail various forms of knowledge and ways of knowing) without which there wouldn’t be any, er, knowledge to argue about in the first place.
When people refer to ‘knowledge’ in such debates, what it often turns out they actually mean is ‘course content’ or ‘subject knowledge’ – that vital, precious stuff that quite appropriately constitutes the bulk of the teaching on university programmes. However, a too-narrow equation of knowledge as such with course content in particular, fails both to account for how this content comes to exist in the first place and also (and this is where the debate becomes particularly dishonest and unhelpful in the context of HE) just how preoccupied we are with precisely with this very question. As educationalists we are, after all, interested not simply in how students come to know vital course content, but also in how they come to know the following: how to engage with that content more critically; how to produce it themselves, individually and collaboratively; why all this matters in the first place; and, last but not least, how to perform these various forms of knowledge in ways we’ve decided are credible and legitimate (performances which, in turn, imply they also know what ‘credible’ and ‘legitimate’ mean and are supposed to look like). An academic discipline is not, after all, simply a body of content. It also comprises all of those practices, values, beliefs, methods, genre conventions, debates, controversies etc. that both inform and shape (indeed, make possible at all) the production of that content. And each one of these can be understood in terms of the particular kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing they require of participants.
(NB. As Dr Matthew Allen (School of Business) explains, on the aptly-named Foundations of Knowledge module, the idea of knowledge itself taking various forms and serving various purposes is actually a very ancient one (for example, and as Matt teaches his students, it’s a central theme of Aristotle’s The Nichomachean Ethics written in the fourth century BCE). Over many, many centuries, numerous scholars from a wide range of fields have debated what knowledge is, what forms it takes, what it’s for, who it’s for and so on (Kautzer, 2015). For an excellent discussion of how debates concerning different types of knowledge (declarative, procedural, technical, ethical, existential etc.) relate specifically to student learning in HE, see Chapter 4 of Johnston et al., 2011).
It’s far more helpful, in my view, to think about what knowledge we want students to develop, both in terms of relevant course content but also, crucially, its production – the latter being, in any case, inextricably related to the former. After all, so much of what students are asked to do involves this process of knowledge production. This is true even when students are in lectures, listening (hopefully!) to the knowledge produced by others. The notes a student leaves a lecture with are themselves an outcome of this process, produced by the student in some form of dialogue with the lecturer and the materials presented. (I could digress at this point into a rant about how a quite bizarre orthodoxy concerning lectures being the apparent enemy of ‘active learning’ seems to have taken root in parts of HE, but that’s for another blog post, perhaps…) Beyond more formal lecture settings, students are also constantly required to engage in knowledge production – for example, when they’re getting on with coursework. This practice itself requires, indeed presupposes, various forms of knowledge without which no piece of student coursework would ever materialise. What is more, it is precisely these kinds of knowledge that we regularly assess students on and implore them to develop. Take a look at any number of marking and assessment documents and you’ll find explicit references to ‘subject knowledge’ form just one component of overall judgements, with qualities like ‘depth of analysis’, ‘critical engagement with ideas and assumptions’, ‘quality of argument’, ‘coherence of structure’, ‘fluency of writing’, ‘relevance to the question’ etc. also strongly emphasised. All of these phrases themselves signify – often somewhat opaquely it has to be said – certain forms of knowledge and ways of knowing. It’s worth pointing out, too, that few if any of them can be meaningfully or helpfully understood by reference to ‘skills’ – at least not in the reductive and de-contextualised sense that (alas, still all too common) notions of supposedly generic ‘study skills’ seem to imply (Lea and Street, 1998; Wingate, 2006).
To take an example from my own experiences as a History undergraduate, whenever I handed in an essay, I was developing and drawing on (well, in the case of the half-decent ones, at least!) the following kinds of knowledge:
- knowledge of the topic embedded in the question/title, sufficient to be able to write about it with some level of authority
- knowledge of what the coded language of the question/title was ‘instructing’ me to do
- knowledge of how and why historians held (often radically) different perspectives on the past and how it should be researched and interpreted and knowledge, too, of why this mattered
- knowledge that it was in the nature of historical knowledge that it was contested and provisional; that the production of historical knowledge was itself an ineluctably interpretive and value-laden process
- knowledge of how a history essay ‘worked’ as a genre – its rules, conventions, structural composition, common rhetorical ‘tricks’ and ‘moves’, methods for deploying evidence, typical balances between more narrative and more analytical content etc.
- knowledge that you didn’t need to cover everything; that it was, indeed, far better to deliberately cover less so as to provide greater depth and space for argument and analysis
- knowledge of how to research an essay effectively – from knowing how to locate relevant secondary and primary sources to knowing what on earth to do with them once I found them (e.g. knowing what to do when confronted with a 500+ page edited collection of essays, in which each chapter title looks indispensable, but which I haven’t a hope of reading in its entirety in the two days left before the deadline).
- knowledge of how to reference according to the guidelines in the handbook.
Producing an essay was an exercise in trying to draw on and integrate all these varied types of knowledge into some kind of coherent form for someone else to read and judge. It was no good, for example, having a detailed knowledge of the topic and various historians’ takes on it, if I did not also know (and know how to show I knew) how you were supposed to refer to these takes, draw on them, and incorporate them within one’s own overall argument(s) in ways historians recognised as valid and legitimate.
What I think this example illustrates is that rather than thinking about education as being about ‘knowledge plus other stuff’, we should ensure instead our conceptions of knowledge itself are sufficiently broad and inclusive so as to encompass the many different things we actually require/desire students to know. This way, we should be better placed to consider how we might enable them to come to know it better. Of course, if we pay more than lip service to the virtues of criticality, this process of ‘coming to know’ would itself also be a critical one in which we interrogated why certain practices of knowledge production and articulation were valued more highly than others and what exactly we were assessing when students presented their own varied forms of knowledge to us. Are students who produce fluent, eloquent essays more critically-engaged, dedicated, motivated etc. than other students, or are they simply better at writing in ways that make them sound like ‘one of us’? In other words, is HE’s so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ less hidden to some than to others and if so, why? It is these kinds of questions that more critically-oriented ‘academic literacies’ scholarship calls our attention to (see, for example, Lillis and Scott, 2007; Burke, 2008; Inohue, 2015; Lillis et al., 2015).
In part two of this post, I turn to the question of ‘transferability’.
Burke, P.J. (2008) Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 15(2), 199-210.
Inohue, A. B. (2015) Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.
Jonston, B., Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Ford, P. (2011) Developing Student Criticality in Higher Education, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Kautzer, C. (2010) Radical Philosophy: an introduction, London: Routledge
Lea, MR & Street, BV (1998) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.
Lillis, T., Harrington, K., Lea, M.R. & Mitchell, S. (2015) Working with academic literacies: case studies of transformative practice, The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado, USA: Parlor Press.
Lillis, T. and Scott, M. (2007) Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy, Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5-32.
Wingate, U. (2006) Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469.
One response to “The Knowledge ‘versus’ Skills Debate, Part 1: forgetting what we know about knowledge.”
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