A year or so I wrote a blog entitled ‘The Problem of Progress’ where I considered how we might recognise the different forms that progression may take within our school curriculum, and therefore how we might assess pupils’ progress within that curriculum. In particular I pointed out the need to use a different approach when assessing knowledge, compared to when we assess skills and understanding. I knew I had some more thinking to do here, because I (like many) am not entirely clear on how we define knowledge, skills and understanding: whether they are separate entities, one single entity, or whether they form parts of a bigger whole.
Anyway, the knowledge vs skills debate has rumbled on, and I feel like I’m beginning to make some headway about what the differences are – in particular, why it’s important for teachers and leaders to consider the role of knowledge vs skills in terms of curriculum, teaching and assessment.
Skills vs. knowledge and understanding
Generally, most of us have a sense of what we mean by skills but it can be difficult to define it as a term, or perhaps distinguish it from knowledge and understanding. We think of skills as being able to ‘do’ something: be that ride a bike, write a letter, evaluate a situation, or complete a complicated mathematical equation. From cognitive psychology, we have the notion of procedural knowledge: the knowledge of how to perform elements of a task (i.e. knowledge of how to do something). The question is, is this procedural knowledge separate from the rest of our knowledge? In actual terms I might say probably not, but for the sake of it’s implications for our classroom practice, I would say it is important to differentiate.
My current thinking (and I’m very prepared to have my mind changed on this!) is that knowledge has three elements that we need to consider as teachers:
- Knowledge – or rather, declarative knowledge. This is knowledge as facts and information, that can be stored in our long term memory and retrieved when needed.
- Understanding. I consider understanding to be the connection of this knowledge to other knowledge that we have. This allows us to interpret or view knowledge (or concepts) in a much deeper sense. The stronger and more connections there are, the more our understanding grows. This is the foundation of schema theory, and I would encourage all teachers to read more around the concept.
- Skills. When referring to skills, I consider this to be how our knowledge and understanding manifests in our behaviours and actions: put simply: how we behave, what we do and how well we do it. Performing a skill often requires an accumulation of knowledge, and is developed through a cycle of practice and feedback (I’ll elaborate on this later). To clarify what we mean by skills, I would employ the concept of procedural knowledge and also the concept of expertise as I think this can be helpful when thinking about what skills look like in the classroom.
What are the implications for teaching, learning and assessment?
Each of these three aspects of knowledge may require slightly different approaches within the classroom: Knowledge may often be imparted through instructional teaching, with opportunities for retrieval practice to ensure that the learning is sustained; understanding may be developed through questioning, variation, and the linking and development of ideas within teaching sequences and the curriculum as a whole; whilst skills (or expertise) are more likely to be developed and honed through deliberate practice.
If we think about progression in each of these aspects, we could recognise this as follows:
Skills: progress means acquiring new skills, or the further development of existing skill or expertise.
Understanding: progress means improving and deepening understanding, by making more links, or strengthening links within our long-term memory.
Knowledge: progress means increasing the amount of knowledge an individual has, but may also be seen in how quickly that individual is able to retrieve this knowledge. There is a crossover here with skills, because being able to retrieve information quickly actually demonstrates advancement in retrieval skills rather than an increase in knowledge, but it is progress nonetheless.
Generally then, knowledge can be assessed through binary form: either an individual knows something or they don’t. The individual’s ability to retrieve that information when needed (or when asked to by a teacher) is a performance activity, which makes it a skill. We know this because we also know that we cannot observe learning in any pure form: all we can do is make inferences about learning based on an individual’s performance.
Understanding, however, is a continuum: we should perceive that it can always be increased. This is what makes it difficult to assess in any binary form. In the national curriculum for English, children in each year group / phase are expected to ‘understand books that they have read, or have been read to them’. Teachers can assess this in binary form: yes they do understand, or no they don’t, but this does not give any indication of the extent to which that child understands, and any teachers assessing against n/c statements would be making fairly subjective inferences. Assessing and tracking against such n/c statements (which I’m aware many teachers are required to do) is likely not to provide particularly valid summative assessments, nor would it be particularly helpful formative assessment for teachers.
When assessing skills, we also need to consider these as a continuum, but can make slightly more valid summative assessments based on performance. Again these binary assessments will allow us to assess whether a pupil can/cannot do something, but will not provide any further (and quite important in terms of progress) information regarding whether they demonstrate these skills with consistency, and the quality or expertise they demonstrate.
If we look at the statements in the 2018/2019 assessment frameworks, we can see that these statements reflect skill rather than knowledge or understanding. Below shows the Year Two standard for reading*:
*taken from KS1 Teacher Assessment Frameworks for 2018/19 – available here
Rather than asking that pupils understand the texts (which would be too subjective a judgement to make), the statements offer a binary assessment of the pupils’ skills: can they do X? Yes or no? Again, this is informative to some extent, but does not tell us how well the child is able to do these things. Then again, it is not intended to.
And do we need to be able to measure pupils’ progress in such a way? The aim of the current national curriculum is for pupils to meet an expected minimum standard by the end of each Key Stage. The standard that has been set is high, and pupils are expected to move towards mastery of that curriculum where they are able to do so.
Teachers will make inferences about where pupils are in their development of skills and pupils’ work will show improvements that have been made as the result of practice and this is what progress will look like.
An interesting point here in terms of pedagogy, is recognising the role of feedback within that process, as this feedback may take a different form depending on whether it relates to knowledge, understanding or skills:
Knowledge: feedback may simply take the form of yes/no – an answer or response being correct or incorrect.
Understanding: feedback is more likely to be in the form of responsive teaching – the teacher using questioning, direct instruction, providing explanations and adapting their content or teaching approach to facilitate improved understanding of a concept.
Skills: when developing skills, feedback may need to be more specific; feedback will need to tell the learner what it is they need to improve and also how to improve. The gradual release model exemplifies how teachers may manage the teaching of skills within the classroom:
Image source: http://bit.ly/1mChqxX
Ultimately, the learner will then need to be given the opportunity for deliberate practice (and possibly a cycle of further feedback) in order to implement identified improvements. We should also consider here that this feedback does not need to come from a teacher, but that the feedback may come from self, from others, or from environmental feedback, and that more independent learners will be able to regulate their learning through self-feedback and self-directed action. This metacognitive approach may be more representative of the expert – who knows when and how to select and apply knowledge into behaviour/action.
So what does this mean for teachers?
Knowledge, skills and understanding may all be inherent workings of the same system, but differentiating between them when thinking about pedagogy may be helpful:
We teach knowledge by imparting key curriculum content, which needs to be clearly identified, with progression in mind. We teach knowledge typically through instruction, but also through feedback.
We teach understanding through carefully planned sequences of learning, which can draw upon a wide range of methods and should engage prior learning. Again, the opportunities for deepening learning, and making links need to be reflected in the curriculum. Responsive teaching is key.
Finally, we teach skills through building a foundation of underpinning knowledge and understanding. We then nurture the development of skills through modelling, guided practice, deliberate practice and feedback. The school curriculum must recognise the component parts of a skill and ensure that children have that underpinning knowledge.
These are our models of progression.
When we observe learning in the classroom (or in a formal testing environment) we are observing skill: a performance; an individual’s ability to do whatever it is that’s being asked of them. However when we teach, we may develop knowledge, skills and understanding in very different, yet overlapping ways.
When we are making binary assessments, they will never sufficiently quantify the progress that our pupils are making. If aspiring to measure the extent to which a pupil is developing expertise, or mastering a skill, comparative approaches may be more helpful than binary ones – this is why we have scaled scores for end of Key Stage assessments, and is also what forms the basis of comparative judgement (championed by Daisy Christodolou at No More Marking).
If we want to look for progress, we need to ensure that our curriculum is built on models of progression, and that teachers are clear about what progress looks like, in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding. If our curriculum sets our expectations, then we know pupils are progressing if they are keeping up with the curriculum.
We need to remember that we can only ever make inferences about learning based on performance, and to put it very basically, if they are progressing, their performance should generally be improving!