Knowledge vs skills: what do students really need to learn?

Knowledge vs skills: what do students really need to learn?

There has been a long-running pedagogical debate over the benefits of a skills-based educational approach, as opposed to a knowledge-based education. And with the exponential development in new technology making huge changes to our society, it’s difficult to predict the future of employment. So, there...


There has been a long-running pedagogical debate over the benefits of a skills-based educational approach, as opposed to a knowledge-based education. And with the exponential development in new technology making huge changes to our society, it’s difficult to predict the future of employment. So, there is an increasing demand for a skills-based education, where students will be equipped with the skills they need to navigate a changing world.

But is a transversal – skills-based – education enough to help our students navigate the world beyond school? What role does knowledge play in a society where everyone has access to a smartphone and can google whatever they want?

Let’s take a deep dive into the debate!

What is a knowledge-based education?

When people talk about a knowledge-based education, they are talking about a formal curriculum which imparts a broad base of general knowledge on traditional subjects. This curriculum is structured in a way which enables students to build on their prior knowledge when learning something new. This approach is very content-focused. An example of a knowledge-based lesson plan would be:

  • Introduction: recap of previous knowledge
  • Presentation: the new knowledge that the students need to acquire
  • Practice: activities which help the students to use this new knowledge, and combine it with their previous knowledge

Proponents of knowledge-based education believe that the more you know, the more you are able to learn. The impact of a content-rich curriculum can reduce the attainment gap between pupils of different socio-economic backgrounds. In this model, learning and research is teacher-led, and students build on their prior knowledge to develop a deeper understanding and mastery of various subjects.

Subject specialisation

This ethos of mastery is reflected in the way that students are encouraged to specialise throughout their education. In primary school, all students study all subjects. But in secondary schools following an international curriculum based on the National Curriculum in England, around the age of 14, students have to start making choices about which subjects they will study at International GCSE level, before specialising even further when it’s time for International A levels.

By the age of 16, many students are focused on studying three subjects – and university is a continuation of this trend. While there are obvious vocational careers like dentistry or accountancy that require a high level of specialised knowledge, many university graduates go into jobs where they’re not using the knowledge they gained during their studies. So, critics of knowledge-based education argue that developing transversal skills would be more useful once students are part of the workplace – and in order to develop these skills, students need a skills-based education.

What is a skills-based education?

A skills-based education is one where the focus is skills development rather than knowledge acquisition. This type of curriculum is structured in a way which prioritises student-led learning and helps students to develop the type of transversal skills which they can apply across subjects and use in every area of their lives. Let’s look at an example of a skills-based lesson plan:

  • Introduction: a warm up activity to engage students in the topic
  • Activities: get students researching and collaborating on the topic
  • Presentation: students present what they’ve learned in the session

Proponents of this system believe that skills-based learning better equips students with the tools they will need to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world. In this model, the measure of successful learning is the development of skills which can be used in different situations to solve different types of problems.

So what type of skills are developed in this framework? Let’s take a look:

Transversal and 21st century skills

The literal meaning of transversal is a line that cuts across other lines. In the context of skills, it means skills that cut across numerous different topic areas. UNESCO defines these skills as “not specifically related to a particular job, task, academic discipline or area of knowledge” and gives the following examples of transversal skills:

  • Critical and innovative thinking
  • Interpersonal skills (presentation and communication skills, organisational skills, teamwork, etc.)
  • Intrapersonal skills (self-discipline, enthusiasm, perseverance, self-motivation, etc.)
  • Global citizenship (tolerance, openness, respect for diversity, intercultural understanding, etc.)
  • Media and information literacy such as the ability to locate and access information, as well as to analyse and evaluate media content

There’s a lot of similarity with the 21st century skills that have become increasingly in demand in recent years, both in the world of education and in the broader world of work.

What are employers looking for?

In the 2020 report The Future of Jobs from the World Economic Forum, the top five skills that employers will be looking for in 2025 are:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Complex problem-solving
  4. Critical thinking and analysis
  5. Creativity, originality and initiative

From this list, we can see there’s a lot of overlap with transversal and 21st century skills.

One of the key findings from the report was that 94% of business leaders expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. This has increased sharply from 65% in 2018, and by the time current students are graduating into the job market, learning on the job will be an expectation across all fields.

What’s more, companies estimate that around 40% of workers will require reskilling. Skills-based hiring is also a major post-pandemic trend in the employment market at the moment.

So, in this context, skills-based education is crucial. Students will need robust learning skills and the ability to think critically and creatively to thrive in the future world of work.

Knowledge and skills: the twin cornerstones of an effective education

Ultimately, knowledge and skills are both essential foundations for a robust education that challenges students and pushes them to achieve their potential. Students cannot develop skills in a vacuum. So, knowledge gives them a foundation for their learning. But at the same time, students need the time and opportunity to practise the skills which will help them to use their knowledge effectively. The best curriculums will balance knowledge and skills, to help students develop their understanding of both themselves and the world around them.

Does your school focus more on knowledge or skills? Where do you stand on the knowledge vs. skills debate?

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