Month: August 2017

All knowledge? What about skills?

This short explainer is taken from my new site, and briefly sets out why I believe knowledge organisers are such powerful tools during curriculum planning and assessment.

All knowledge? What about the skills?

I have written extensively about Knowledge Organisers over the last year or so, and although the reaction to them has been mostly positive, there have been some criticisms. I address most of these in this FAQ blog post, but it’s worth quickly dealing with the most common here.

It is the criticism that knowledge is pointless without the ability to apply it. What we are really interested in is critical thinking, not mindlessly regurgitating an endless list of facts. So should a knowledge organiser really be what we are putting at the centre of our learning?

It’s a compelling criticism, and in a sense is correct in terms of its aim. Of course we all want children to be critical thinkers, and to be able to ask insightful questions about the topic that they are studying, and debate and reason and probe. But whilst we may all agree on the aim, there is debate about the journey that we must take to get there. Daisy Christodoulou, in Making Good Progress, categorises these different approaches in method as:

  1. Teaching Skills Directly – the generic-skill method
  2. Teaching Skills Indirectly – the deliberate-practice method

Drawing on empirical evidence from psychological experiments, Christodoulou argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a ‘generic skill’, and so trying to directly teach, say ‘critical thinking’ is a lost cause. You may be wonderful at thinking critically about, say, Baroque art, but that will help you not a jot if someone asks you to critically evaluate Presocratic schools of philosophical thought.

In fact, your success in either of these pursuits rests on your underlying knowledge of the respective domain. That is to say, the more that you know about Baroque art, the more critically you can think about it (and vice versa). So really, the skill of ‘critical thinking’ about a particular subject is just short-hand for describing how much you know about that subject.


With this in mind, the best chance that we have at ensuring children can achieve all of those aims that we agree are so important, is to fix within them a comprehensive foundation of facts about that subject. This will help develop a web of interconnected facts, or a schema, which will not only ensure that future learning about that subject is easier, but will allow the possessor to reason and evaluate and synthesise information about the topic.

Additionally, this web ensures that falsehoods (so important in these days of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’) are less likely to be accepted, as they contradict the facts already within the web. For example, if you know the following two facts:

  1. Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago
  2. Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago

then the assertion “Dinosaurs and humans lived alongside one another” is easily dismissed and unlikely to set in as a misconception.

For these reasons, skills should not feature on a knowledge organiser, even if they are our ultimate aim when delivering a unit of work.