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Knowledge vs. Skills: What's More Important?

Knowledge vs. Skills: What's More Important? - Aidan Severs Consulting Ltd

Knowledge vs. Skills: What's More Important?

This questions was posed on X recently.

I replied:

"Skills are a kind of knowledge - a knowledge of how to do something. Different subjects require the teaching of a different balance of knowledge and skills (or substantive knowledge and procedural knowledge). Often knowledge is needed to then carry out a skill. So I'd say both, but think it is more nuanced than that. It's both, but in the right balance for each subject."

That's the TL;DR right there (although skip to the end if you've got questions about where disciplinary knowledge comes in).

Let's unpack that just a little.

First of all, although there is nothing wrong with using the terminology of knowledge and skills - afterall, its a common language that we all understand, and it keeps things simple - it helps to think of substantive and procedural knowledge instead.

I've explained these pieces of terminology at length in my blog post 'What Are All The Different Types Of Knowledge? (part 1)' which you can read here: You can also download a summary below for free:

Skills as a type of knowledge

I think this language helps because it frames skills as a kind of knowledge - the knowledge of how to do something, or of how to carry out a procedure. Often, the ability to use or apply a skill begins with learning what that skill is, how it works and what it is used for - that's a kind of knowledge. For some of us, and with some of these items of procedural knowledge, the ability to demonstrate that skill becomes automated, and we can do it without too much thought - usually as a result of lots of practice. It's almost at that point where it becomes a true skill.

So, if we are pitting skills against knowledge, and skills are actually a particular kind of knowledge, it stands to reason that they are both as important as each other - we need to know things (e.g. facts, pieces of information) and know how to do things.

Subject differences in (substantive) knowledge vs. skills (procedural knowledge)

But asking which is more important in general terms is a bit pointless. Each subject that we teach has its own dynamic when it comes to the balance of substantive and procedural knowledge that is taught.

Based on the primary national curriculum we can see that some subjects are weighted towards substantive knowledge, and others more towards procedural knowledge, whilst some have a more equal balance of the two:

English: very weighted towards procedural knowledge: how to decode, how to write, how to spell, how to write neatly BUT all of these are linked to, and rooted in, substantive knowledge e.g. grammar and spelling conventions

Maths: again, very procedural: how to add, how to work with fractions, how to measure, but without the foundation of key pieces of mathematical substantive knowledge it would be impossible to carry out many of these processes

History: weighted towards substantive knowledge - the who, the what, the were, and most importantly when - however, also important is how we find out all this information - checking and analysing sources, using artefacts, and so on are historical 'skills', or items of procedural knowledge

RE: another one that focuses more on substantive knowledge - learning about other religions is key - but it's not without the procedural knowledge either: the skills of empathy and seeing things from others' points of view are important

Art: procedural knowledge is prioritised - how to use certain drawing techniques, for example - but substantive knowledge about artworks, artists and artistic movements provide a necessary context for learning key pieces of procedural knowledge.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture: each subject has a slightly different balance of substantive and procedural knowledge to be taught and learned, and, quite often, the teaching of one relies on the other in some way. So it's not a case of asking Knowledge vs. Skills: What's More Important?, but how can they both be taught and how do they complement each other?

A word on disciplinary knowledge

This is still misunderstood. What many schools think of as disciplinary knowledge is probably actually procedural knowledge as outlined above.

In this blog post I shared:

Christine Counsell describes disciplinary knowledge as "what pupils learn about how that [substantive] knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised’" (emphasis my own). The writers of OfSTED's Geography review use this very definition themselves.

An example of this, taken from the OfSTED History review would be that "disciplinary knowledge is knowledge of how historians investigate the past, and how they construct historical claims, arguments and accounts."

So, for each subject taught, to teach disciplinary knowledge, schools should teach children how practitioners in each field have come to know what they know. How do geographers/musicians/artists/designers/writers/scientists work? What are their processes? How have they arrived at conclusions, theories and ideas?

The confusion comes when we then teach pupils to think and act like these practitioners because once they begin to carry out those processes, they begin to learn items of procedural knowledge. So disciplinary knowledge and procedural knowledge are linked, but are distinct from one another.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on the development and delivery of your curriculum in your school, academy, trust or local authority, you can get in touch via or using the contact details on this page.

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