What is the purpose of distinguishing the teaching of skills from content?

The purpose of separating the teaching (or learning) of skills from the teaching or learning content is ongoing and heated. It is often what international schools do to distinguish themselves: the main chains of international schools  (GEMS, NAE, D and H) market themselves on teaching these type of ‘learning skills’. So what might be the purpose of learning ‘skills’, and how might be choose to make the learning of these somewhat more consistent?

There is an ongoing discussion between ideologies termed ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’, with ideas that either philosophy focuses on teaching ‘skills’ or content ‘respectively’.

The current status quo in teaching is that we are to prioritise the teaching of skills over the teaching of content. There are various reasons for this relating to the adult-needs model of teaching (making good workers), but the perceived consequences are that students who are taught the skills (to teach themselves) are able to learn beyond the remit of a teacher. They are also, if they have consolidated learning skills, more able to teach themselves skills necessary for a job when they are older.

Whether there has been a time where British teachers focused almost entirely on the dissemination and testing of content is questionable. Perhaps in the late 1800s when teachers were paid entirely upon whether students passed a fact-based exam, yes. But since the 1950s? I would like to stand corrected.

Over the past twenty years, with some acceleration over the past five to eight (with the grow of twitter connecting education blogs), there is an increasing movement towards a (new and growing) status quo accepting that the teaching of knowledge is essential for the teaching of skills. The notion that ‘All you need is Google’ is misleading (and, inherently, false). If you had to respond to a statement such as ‘The French revolution was responsible for spreading new political ideas to the people’, simply knowing each of these words (and even phrases) in turn would be so sketchy in terms of knowledge that your understanding would be inaccurate. You would need to have already chunked ideas of what the French Revolution meant, and of political ideas throughout the ages, and of what ‘the people’ might mean. Without a teacher to guide you in thinking what these terms might mean, to help you gain this knowledge, no amount of skills in research and reflection would grant you a true (or even accurate) understanding of that phrase.

Why are teachers needed to guide students – can’t they guide themselves?

On that topic of teachers guiding students, one point to which I have become increasingly attracted flows from the metaphor by Helen Keller of a child’s mind being like a brook (thank you John Tomsett). Like Daniel Willingham says in ‘Why Children do not Like School’, the human mind is not predisposed to want to learn naturally – it is far more accurate to see the human (and especially the child’s) mind as attracted by curiosity and fancy and whim.

Helen Keller states that she required a teacher to guide her curiosity at the right time towards the waterfalls of deeper (and more difficult) understanding. Such learning was not always by default.

Before returning to the importance of knowledge in the skills vs content debate, I should like to paint an example often used by those in ICT who might suggest that online learning will usurp teachers. A similar declaration was made when radio came into the classrooms. And TV. And certainly with YouTube. There is even, now, a website called www.noexcuselist.com that collates all the online learning courses available.

Yet despite you being able to access all the above, you most likely use it to watch funny cat videos.

Any why not? Alan Bennett stressed time and time again the importance of the highbrow and lowbrow proving worthy antidotes to the other.

However, a teacher will be needed to guide students to want to learn. I would go so far as to say that a teacher’s purpose is to make students interested in stuff that they should really be interested in but for some reason aren’t.

So what is a practical consideration of teaching skills in learning?

Drawing these ideas together to something more practical, here are some ambitions with our learning objectives research. Skills in learning (think SEAL or PLTS for the UK, and HPL for NAE, or DARE for DESC), can be considered either:

a) As part of something planned.
b) Something serendipitously referenced at the right time in a lesson.

I am more inclined to include such skills at a part in the lesson where the skills have been apparently demonstrated (such as in a plenary, mini or otherwise). This can enhance a KWL/pyramid plenary (what have you learned, how does this link to existing knowledge, how can you extend this knowledge).

I have found that planning these skills has sometimes led to generic associations such as:

Groupwork = Share Skills
Choosing = Dare Skills
Drafting = Excel Skills
Artistic = Creative Skills

So how can this link to actually creating learning objectives?

My learning objectives essentially follow the formula:

Cognitive verb stem + content + skill
Analyse Act 1 Scene 5 of Shakespeare so we can develop our awareness of word-level connotations.

Evaluate our creative writing homeworks so we can judge the effectiveness of sentence length variation.

The following comes from the great blogpost of whole school learning objective principle by Kristian Still:

Learning Aims, Outcomes or Objectives

Do you still use this after three years? 

I do, and more. I sometimes found that, like with the above learning objectives, they could be a little dry and academic, especially considering that their viewing party would be students (of all abilities). Zoe Elder states, with common sense and more, that learning objectives should state the reason why they exist.

Cognitive verb stem + content + why are we doing this? (skill if this is explicit).

so: Analyse Act 1 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet so we can understand how a sonnet can show the overpowering nature of love.

What are some final considerations?

This style of phrasing learning objectives is principled to be agreed, yet has the flexibility to be fulfilled in a variety of methods depending on the desire of the teacher.

Of course, one issue could be that a lesson may contain learning that involves various different verb stems (i.e. you could analyse and evaluate in the same lesson). In this case, I tend to differentiate the lesson by either the verb stem, or the content, when planning a sequence of lessons.