No, really, what about knowledge versus skills?

In the philosophical dialogue Theaetetus, Plato provides a definition of knowledge which has, more or less, lasted intact for two and a half thousand years. Knowledge, we are told, is justified true belief. Philosophers have long argued about the exact meaning of the ‘justified’ bit – what justification means exactly is perhaps the preeminent philosophical question. But for the purposes of discussing what goes on in schools, we should be more concerned with ‘true belief’ bit of the classic definition. It entails that those who advocate knowledge as the structuring principle of curricula, and of teaching itself, must make a choice from one of the following options:

1. Abandon the definition of knowledge as provided by Plato


2. Devise a school and assessment system where true beliefs are conveyed to students, and from which we can say with confidence that students go away believing these true beliefs to be true.

My hunch is the knowledge advocates are likely to go for 2.  Which is is where the trouble starts.

If knowledge is defined as justified true belief, then an item of knowledge must be a belief. But belief is an internal mental state, and so wholly ill-suited as the object of assessment, of practice, of modelling, or of observation. You can’t see someone believing something, because it is internal. You can’t practice believing something, because it is a state not an action. You can’t model believing something, because it is an internal, mental state, and modelling is a perceived action. Almost everything about belief – and, therefore, knowledge – makes it singularly inappropriate as the basis of the kinds of things that teachers and assessors usually set out to do in the education system.

If you find that argument hard to follow, then consider this: it is perfectly possible for someone to do exceptionally well at an exam – in any subject, even the ‘hardest’ of the hard sciences – and yet not believe a word of the principles that underlie that subject.  Our imaginary student could well secretly consider their physics teacher, for example, a deluded fool, and privately be convinced that Aristotelian physics is a far superior description of the world than anything Newton or Einstein has to offer. And yet, by assiduously listening in all their lessons, doing all the practice tasks required, taking on feedback and turning in the homeworks (very important, that) they could become extremely good at the physics exam. This scenario is not in any way controversial in its possibility – it may be outlandish, but is clearly possible – and so it sketches out very clearly and unanswerably what exactly is logically entailed by ‘doing well at physics exams’, and ‘having knowledge’ ain’t it.

In fact, any physics exam, as with most academic exams, is necessarily an assessment purely of linguistic competence (and in many cases a pretty temporary competence, it might be added). Exams are chiefly a way of measuring how well a student is able to use – by which for the most part we mean read and write – a set of vocabulary items, as well as, in some cases, some conventions about their use, in order to understand and produce certain kinds of text. That some knowledge may underwrite this capacity is, I acknowledge, likely. You probably need to believe certain things about what, say, ‘gravity’ typically means (andnot, I repeat, what it actually is) in order to successfully use the word ‘gravity’. But this is knowledge about language, and not about the world, which is what knowledge advocates typically think they’re arguing for.

Even that most ‘objective’ of school subjects, Maths, is devoid of knowledge – the most devoid of knowledge in fact, since it is no more than the business of dealing with a complex series of definitions. Mathematical exams require the (beautiful and extraordinarily useful) capacity to manipulate a set of complex and very precisely defined words which are entirely about themselves. If you don’t believe me, I shall be delighted to come number-spotting with you – I’ll bring my binoculars, and you can take me to where exactly it is in the world that the number ‘4’ can be readily observed. 

Advocates of knowledge-based curricula are, without usually realising it, in fact advocates of vocabulary-based curricula. This can be seen quite clearly when one reflects on one of their favourite rhetorical devices: the ‘knowledge schema’. A powerpoint favourite, this is a ‘diagram’ of the inside of someone’s mind (or is it brain? – never quite sure…) which purports to show the things they ‘know’. The schema is presented as a network, with pretty little lines connecting bubbles, just as networks are typically represented. I have yet, though, to hear anyone explain exactly what this pretty little network is a pretty little network of. This is not a hard question, surely – a computer network is a network of computers, a social network is a network of people, a transport network is a network of destinations. So what is a knowledge network a network of – knowledges?

‘Knowledges’ sounds odd because, in English, knowledge is an uncountable noun, so it can’t really be described in terms of the kind of countable items (like computers or destinations) that are appropriate candidates for the nodes of the network. Philosophers, who typically take knowledge to be a type of belief, have the obvious answer to this difficulty: knowledge is broken down into beliefs, each of which takes the form of a proposition – a statement about the world which can be represented as a sentence. But I have not once seen a knowledge network scheme diagram which was presented as a linking up any of these items – beliefs, propositions or sentences. Almost invariably, the contents of the pretty little bubbles are single words, which are usually described as being ‘concepts’. But a single concept of this type, taken in its own, simply can’t be an item of knowledge, since a concept cannot be true or false. It is plain gobbledygook to ask a question like ‘is wallaby true?’

Not only this, but we are often told that a great danger is that students create schema containing ‘misconceptions’ – falsehoods. Now, assuming that an isolated concept like ‘unicorn’ was in itself capable of being false (which it isn’t), its inclusion in the network would immediately invalidate the networks status as one of knowledge. This is because knowledge, as we have said, is necessarily true: by definition, there can be no misconceptions in a knowledge network.

Those powerpoint-friendly diagrams are thus better considered as vocabulary networks. They illustrate the not-exactly revolutionary notion that the meanings of our words are all interconnected. As we acquire a new word, it is ‘fit’ in with other words to become part of a larger, overarching system (though, as I discuss elsewhere, the exact way it fits in is complex, and undergoes considerable revision as we learn more and more of the nuances of the word).

There is, it is true, a philosophical question about the mental ‘concepts’ that we might think these words ‘stand for’. The existence or otherwise of such mysterious entities as ‘meanings’ or ‘concepts’ is a fascinating and important question, but not one, in my view, that most teachers need spend a great deal of time worrying about. It suffices to say that teachers (at least that portion of them who teach ‘academic’ subjects) are in the business of building vocabularies of various sorts, and the obvious way that this is done is to guide students in seeing how new words – and new meanings for old words – fit together with the language they already have.

The difference between acquiring beliefs-about-the-world and acquiring word-meaning is theoretical, but significant. Many units of work based on ‘knowledge’ could be reoriented to ‘vocabulary’ with relatively little impact on the brute content of what is studied, but models of pedagogy which fail to recognise the fundamentally linguistic nature of the task of academic teaching are bound to get muddled. The trend towards the zealous monitoring and micromanagement of lesson and unit plans is just one unhappy result of this muddle. Even the most fervent of explicit teaching advocates must acknowledge that most vocabulary is acquired (for the long term, at least) through relatively informal interaction. Teachers’ time would be far better spent opening students’ perspectives, rather than filling them with unnecessarily fussy detail.

The second part of the classical definition of knowledge – that it is true belief – is even more significant, as it raises troubling questions about the motivations and long term effects of the currently fashionable preoccupation with ‘knowledge’. It’s tempting to get quite philosophical here, since truth is almost as confusing a notion as justification. But I don’t think you need to get too bogged down in philosophy to recognise that there are some significant difficulties with setting out to teach what is ‘true’. Which of the following statements, for example, might it be legitimate to teach students as being ‘true’?

1. There are 118 elements.

2. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s policies led to economic and social inequality.

3. Martin Luther King’s struggles led to social justice.

4. Any of the principles of Newtonian physics.

5. Ecosystems are self-equilibriating.

6. The First World War was caused by German aggression.

7. Post-war welfare states led to economic stagnation and the loss of personal freedom.

8. Women gained equality in the 1960s.

9. Shakespeare’s plays are principally intended to celebrate humanist self-awareness.

10.  The Green Revolution’s application of science to farming saved millions of people from starvation.

None of these statements are perhaps outright false, but their truth is in various ways at the very least provisional, or contestable. This may be because they stray on to politically controversy, as with 2 and 10, or because they simplify the current findings of natural science in some way, as in 1 and 4.

I am not of course suggesting that students not be introduced to these kind of propositions – of course they should. It is more a question of the atmosphere and culture within which this takes place. This is of particular importance in the humanities. In secondary school, and even before, students will in these subjects inevitably study questions and topics about which even the experts do not agree. This cannot and must not be sidestepped, and yet, increasingly, it is. The word ‘knowledge’ is seized on by many as a simple matter of common sense, a move all too often of those who wish to close down debate. It carries with it an enormous sense of power and importance, and this comes, I feel, chiefly from the ‘true’ part of its meaning. It is an immensely satisfying and flattering proposition to think of oneself as a bringer of truths, but one of which liberal minded teachers ought to be endlessly suspicious. 

Advocates of knowledge in school usually frame their arguments in terms of equity – they are all sharing out the goodies of ‘core knowledge’ with which white, middle class children are fed from birth. Possessing this ‘knowledge’ will give disadvantaged young people access to texts from which they would otherwise be unfairly ‘locked out’. Thus, students must be taught the ‘truth’ about the Renaissance, say, so that they might understand the implication of sentences like the following:

These innovations led to a renaissance in semi-conductor design and manufacture 

I have a great deal of sympathy with the general thrust of this point but, as has been shown, the details of the argument are terribly muddled. For this sentence to make sense, and thus for students to understand it, the actual Renaissance does not in truth need to have been a positive period of rapid change and development – writer and reader just need to be aware that the word ‘Renaissance’ typically has this association.

In fact, a significant contingent of early modern historians vigorously dispute the typical understanding of the Italian Renaissance (a term, they would point out, which only began to be used in the 19th Century). Presumably, these experts would have no trouble understanding the sentence about the semi-conductor, despite the fact that, for them, the 15th Century Renaissance was something of a damp squib when compared to the intellectual fireworks of the 13th Century. It is thus a deep muddle to think that believing truths (ie having knowledge) of any sort can help students access texts. Again, it is not believing truths, but possessing a rich and deep vocabulary, that makes the difference.  

It is worth pointing out that the vocab-agenda, as I would rechristen it, is important, and is an important correction to some approaches which have neglected the importance of schools teaching the vocabularies of academic genres. When schools become too fixated on various kinds of thinking skills in formulating their academic programmes, they do indeed risk leaving out the crucial words which are the very medium of that thinking. Academic curricula which are overly preoccupied only with what students might do with words (create, solve problems, think critically etc) can send the wrong signal to students and staff alike about what disciplined thinking is. In History, for example, arguments would lack clarity about the precise timing of events, the organisations and individuals involved, or the formal social or economic processes which relate to the changes under study. In the sciences, students asked to ‘solve problems’ would lack the vocabulary required to describe the entities and processes of which the problem is composed.   

In practice, though, teaching skills without introducing vocabulary is actually quite a hard thing to do. You can’t practice, say, critical thinking in History without thinking about a particular period in history, and so inevitably introducing a range of vocabulary items with which to do the thinking. What really gets the knowledge advocates’ goat, I suspect, is the haphazard way in which vocabulary may be accumulated in a skills-based approach. Students might be, for example, invited to ‘just’ go off and ‘just’ choose something for themselves to ‘just’ read and then think and write about. In these kinds of scenarios one student ends up with an academic vocabulary which is different from another’s: one student may know the core meaning of the proper nouns ‘Martin Luther King’ and ‘Lyndon B Johnson’, along with that of the noun phrase ‘bus boycott’. Another student would end up with a comparable, but obviously different, range of vocabulary items relating to Gandhi.  

For many this picture is very troubling, partly because so many diverse paths of this kind are hard to wrangle towards the all-important destination of the public exam. It also suggests a smaller role for schools in forming young people’s minds than many would like. It requires teachers to give up some of their control – a deeply troubling prospect for some of them.

Perhaps most critically, encouraging a diversity of experiences at school, and therefore a diversity of vocabularies amongst students, risks violating that holy of holies of 21st Century education policy: social mobility. The management and ownership classes long to rest easy that their increasing privileges, about which some of them at least are rather embarrassed, are justified, and so turn to the fantasy that it’s possible for schools to make sure we all start the game of life with the same amount knowledge in the bank – the same number of counters in the bag. It is a board-game vision of education, and of society, and is about as realistic a model of what schools could or should be as ‘Monopoly’ is of 21st century capitalism. 

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