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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

What is the right balance between ingredients and cake?

What's the right balance between teaching knowledge and teaching skills? That's the wrong question, writes Daisy Christodoulou on No More Marking. It's like "asking what the right balance is between ingredients and cake. The ingredients make the cake, just as the knowledge makes the skill."


Photo: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence, introduced in 2010, minimized content knowledge in favor of a set of skills statements such as: “Using what I know about the features of different types of texts, I can find, select and sort information from a variety of sources and use this for different purposes.”


It's gone badly. Parents complain standards are low, reports the Sunday Times, while teachers say expectations are vague and unhelpful. An architect of the curriculum, Keir Bloomer, told the Times: “The problem is we did not make sufficiently clear that skills are the accumulation of knowledge. Without knowledge there can be no skills.” The Scottish curriculum sets worthy goals, but doesn't help "teachers who would like their students to achieve them," writes Christodoulou.

The best way to teach complex skills is by "breaking them down into smaller parts, teaching those smaller parts, and gradually combining together the constituent parts in increasing complexity," she writes. Our working memories can't handle lots of new information at once. In most school subjects, she writes, those smaller parts look like what we call "knowledge."

In order to “describe the main features of conflicting world belief systems in the past and can present informed views on the consequences of such conflict for societies then and since”, (students) need to know when different historical events happened.

"Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that's true not simply because you need something to think about," writes cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham. "The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” When Christodoulou taught a similar skills-based curriculum in England, "even brilliant and experienced teachers could not make it work," she writes. "That’s because it was based on the premise that there were no missing details and knowledge gaps for the teachers to fill in." Teachers were told not to teach vocabulary, times tables or historical chronology. They were told it wasn't necessary. But it was.

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