Let’s Flip the Focus – Knowledge v Skills

I’ve been contemplating this post for a number of months now. The paradox of teaching generic skills in Further Education (FE) to enhance prospects. These are developing thoughts only and I welcome feedback.


The majority of learners recruited in FE are those that didn’t necessarily achieve the highest grades at school. This lack of achievement may be as a result of many factors, but focusing purely on cognition, is likely to be as a result of not remembering or knowing enough (about the curriculum). Interestingly, rather than focusing on providing these individuals with knowledge, FE has seen a huge emphasis on delivering sessions that are learner centred, and that focus on the development of generic employability skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and creativity (perhaps due to external pressure?). These learner centred practices may involve experiential learning activities (role play), project based learning (group work), inquiry based learning or something of a similar ilk. Much of these practices are informed by the work of Vygotsky, Rogers and Dewey to name a few.


I’m not going to lie, I actually like and make use of some of these approaches from time to time, but recognise that they do focus on generic skill development, rather than explicitly aiming to increase knowledge. Although recognised as essential by Sweller, he asserts that generic skills can’t actually be taught.

‘Generic skills are far more basic and far more important than domain-specific knowledge, but they do not need to be taught because we have evolved over countless generations to acquire them effortlessly and unconsciously simply by membership of a society.’

This quote identifies the fact that the aforementioned generic skills are formed and developed naturally, and cites Geary’s (2012) definition of these skills as being ‘biologically primary knowledge’. Further to primary knowledge, biologically secondary knowledge is that which can only be acquired through instruction according to Sweller:

‘Biologically secondary knowledge is knowledge we have not specifically evolved to acquire but that we need for cultural reasons. We will not acquire such knowledge automatically and indeed, we invented schools and other educational institutions precisely in order to teach biologically secondary knowledge because otherwise it tends not to be learned.’

This is the knowledge contained within curriculum. The core ‘domain specific’ information needed by learners (or perceived to be needed by those writing the curriculum). The knowledge that without acquiring, may lead to learners not being able to problem solve or think critically about.


A wealth of research has explored the differences between experts and novices and found that their cognition is different. Experts are able to draw upon a wealth of knowledge from their long term memory to enable better problem solving and critical thinking skills (Willingham, 2009).  I often use the example of myself when discussing this with my trainee teachers. If you were to ask me to solve a problem with an individual’s exercise programme or diet, I could make use of my prior knowledge to provide a suitable solution. Ask me to solve a problem with a car engine and you’ve lost me. I can only just remember how to open the car bonnet!


By teaching learners to be experts through learner centred, guided discovery, higher order activities, or whatever else you want to call it, we are not improving their knowledge as well as we might through explicit instruction or methods that have shown to improve long term memory. I always use the question ‘how do learners know what they need to know?’ when talking about learner choice and inquiry based learning and the research summarised by Hattie appears to support this notion (though only looking at achievement outcomes (o.04 and 0.31 respectively)).


In summary, teaching lessons through learner led methods in FE may not be as productive as we think. In fact, maybe we should flip the focus our attention on ensuring that learners really have learnt the knowledge needed and are given ample opportunity to reinforce this. I have written about how you might do this here. Then and only then might we find that their ‘generic skills’ develop.




6 thoughts on “Let’s Flip the Focus – Knowledge v Skills

  1. The focus on generic skills is understandable yet misguided. It’s also patronising according to some on Twitter commenting on the education of lower ability students. “Can’t handle knowledge? OK, we’ll give you a soft and enjoyable alternative”. A bit of a harsh observation but worth investigating.

    For me the challenge remains: how to pursue a knowledge and memory agenda to students who, in many ways, may be escaping a school culture and experiences of self-perceived failure.

    In other words, how best to win the over to what may seem a continuation of the same school learning culture. FE students are also adults and yearning for more agency and autonomy.

    How can FE teachers, then, create alignment of the two.

    1. Yes that’s a fair point Oliver. I think there is a balance to be gained, whereby learners have the opportunity to work independent of the teacher and more collaboratively, but the focus on knowledge is certainly lacking and needs to take more of a precedent in my opinion. Thanks for the comment!

  2. my entire life, ive preferred a learning-by-doing approach. it has real merits, and i dont think we should abandon the idea of making apprenticeship a real possibility for more people. that is practical learning.

    at the same time, with all the push made towards a learn-by-doing approach over the past decades, perhaps we have created a monster. trivia is abundant and practicality has all the recognition it needs, while deeper knowledge is overshadowed and even discouraged.

    perhaps we really need both. whats funny is that everyone has a favorite mode (perhaps reflecting their own path to success in learning?) and you almost never hear “we need more of both.”

    if there is something we lacked before that we also lack now, its flexibility. we need more of that, because properly tailoring rigid solutions is an oxymoron. but society perhaps does not care enough about deeper knowledge at this time. thats definitely something to address.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Appreciate the thoughts. I don’t necessarily see a problem in the learn by doing approach per se, rather the focus of learning not being led by the teacher/trainer and the learner not being given the essential knowledge. The focus on generic skills needs to be shifted as it is not possible to directly teach these. For example, the whole notion of giving learners problems to solve and expecting them to become better at problem solving is a myth. Giving them more knowledge and supporting them to retain this allows for the generic skills to naturally develop – well according to what I’ve read anyway. I’m open to alternative research though! Thanks again

      1. its common in programming; people who taught themselves to code (like i did) insisting that everyone needs to “do a project” before they have any concept of design.

        its the lego metaphor gone fundamentalist: to the person that has learned to code, things are legos to fit together. but not everyone can figure out how they fit together without someone sharing the background information: the depth. i think most educators realize this; but im not as certain about people working on course design.

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