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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Education for Wisdom

Last weekend a twitter debate started on Friday night between myself and David Didau, with various other people keen to express a view on whether the knowledge versus skills debate is a false dichotomy, which rolled onto Saturday involving Alex Quigley and Joe Kirby.  

This post is not intended to shut down the knowledge versus skills debate, I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to.  I’m happy for others to have the debate but I am in a different jungle and more interested in engaging in different debates.  Education is for wisdom, not simply knowledge nor simply skills.

Standing On the Mountain Top

The curriculum is part of a greater whole.  It is the servant of what we ultimately consider to be the purpose of education and consequently what we would want an educated person to be.  The curriculum breathes our vision and values of education into the daily lived experiences of the people who work in our schools.

The detailed discussions that occur around a knowledge or skills based curriculum are in the “wrong jungle”.  If the educated are to be wise they will need a broad and deep factual knowledge and understanding, the procedural and metacognitive skills to enable them to transfer and apply this knowledge and a moral compass to ensure they use their knowledge and skills for their own and others benefit. 

21st Century DNA

We need a coherent view of the purpose of education and what an educated person in the 21st Century should be.  From this perspective the curriculum can then be designed and constructed to help meet these aims.  Whilst many changes have occurred, over the years, in education we have no nationally agreed purpose for the education we offer.  This may be a good thing as it allows for individuality and different positions to be taken but clearly it leaves the problem of no unifying direction or outcome to our collective educational efforts. 

Skilled Psycopaths, Educated Eichmanns

Boston Headteacher Letter to New Staff

The letter from the Boston Head teacher is poignant and moving.  She had seen things “what no-one should witness”.

Prior to discussing a knowledge or skills based curriculum, we should commit to ensuring, however capable our students become, they have a moral compass that directs their actions towards that which is good, enriching and life-giving to themselves and others.  Neither a knowledge or skills based curriculum will do this but it should be an essential element of a child’s education and what we consider an educated person to be.  This is why sometimes standing on a mountain top and reflecting, to see the whole picture, is an important part of our curriculum thinking and planning.

Goals in Education

Knowledge is King or Skills are King

People who are ardent proponents of a factual and conceptual knowledge based curriculum, are like many groups, a “wide church”.  Equally so are the people who propose that skills (procedural and metacognitive knowledge) are king.  Both groups have a particular position but it is important to realise there are different and important nuances actually between the members within each group. 

3Cs of Knowledge – Consumers, Communicators and Creators

Part of being truly educated is to be a consumer, communicator and creator of knowledge.  A curriculum that is rich and deep in factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge is more likely to achieve these three inter-related aims.

The consumer stage of knowledge requires us to be taught important facts on which our deeper understanding may be formed.  I accept that the determination of what constitutes “cultural literacy” is always going to be difficult and in many ways will form a moving feast.  This does not then mean that a content free curriculum should necessarily follow as a coherent argument.  As a scientist, I would argue dynamic equilibrium, terminal velocity and Mendelian genetics are all valuable.  An understanding of how particles, forces and genes interact is an important part of us understanding the World around us.  The complexity of thought required, by a student, in looking at interacting factors is hugely valuable.  This becomes even more so if the metacognitive dimension of learning is also engaged at this point.

As communicators of knowledge we will be able to describe and explain what we have learnt to others including successfully doing so to pass important examinations.  Communicators form part of a wide body of people who help educate a nation.

A creator of knowledge can work at the edge of what they know to construct, re-construct and co-construct new knowledge and greater understanding.  This requires a different set of skills associated with subject procedural knowledge – knowing how to act like a scientist, historian or linguist – and metacognitive knowledge.

The first two Cs can be achieved successfully by a factual and conceptually rich knowledge based curriculum.  However, this curriculum on its own will not support a person to create knowledge.

Imposter Syndrome

My concern around the “Knowledge is King” curriculum approach – the factual and conceptual dimensions of knowledge – is that it will only meet two of the “Cs”.  Students can acquire the requisite knowledge and facts and communicate them highly effectively, for example, in A-level examinations where they may achieve excellent grades.  However a relative lack of the habits of mind, procedural skills and metacognitive skills means that when required to create “new knowledge”, to work beyond what we already know they stumble and falter.  They come to the precipice of what they know and cannot go any further.

Counsellors at Oxbridge universities talk of helping students who develop “Imposter Syndrome”, though it is by no means limited to these universities or academia.  This is a worrying psychological condition that can lead to bouts of anxiety and depression where a student feels unworthy of their place at the university as they are challenged to go beyond that which is known and lack the skills to do it.  It is not that they are incapable of creating knowledge, it is that they have experienced a “hothouse knowledge is king curriculum” that has only partially prepared them for university life.  Our students deserve better than this.

I’ve Discovered the Wheel!

Teaching procedural and metacognitive skills is highly likely to give the student the skills required to be a creator or knowledge.  A student who has experienced a rich skills based curriculum is able to go beyond the precipice of their knowledge but sadly the precipice isn’t ever very far from their starting point – too much time going around in circles without clear direction leads to a lack of progress.

Teaching skills is in a vacuum of factual and conceptual knowledge doesn’t make sense or serve any particular purpose.  I came to this view, in my second year of teaching in 1989, when sat in a conference on Process Science.  It was suggested that we set our students a homework task to observe soap bubbles for thirty minutes to help improve their observational skills.  Mind numbing I thought then and mind numbing I still think now.

The dangers in teaching a skills only curriculum, or one that is very biased in that knowledge dimension, is students can spend a lot of time discovering what we already know.

However, some skills are transferable particularly those associated with metacognitive knowledge.  The comprehension of a text and extraction of key information from it is a skill that is transferable across the curriculum.  Time spent explicitly teaching this skill will be paid back a hundredfold.  The following learning protocol was adapted from a process called “Reciprocal Teaching” (Hattie, 2009, Visible Learning, pp. 203-204).  It needs explicit teaching, consistency in application across the curriculum and students drilling in the approach until it is second nature to them.

Learning Protocol for Comprehension of a Text & Extracting Key Information

Learning Protocol for Comprehension of a Text & Extracting Key Information

For comparison against this strategy of Reciprocal Teaching (d=0.74, Rank=9th) or teaching metacognitive strategies (d=0.69, Rank=13th) compare very favourably to the strategy of direct instruction which has a d=0.59 and is ranked 26th in Hattie, 2009, Visible Learning. This doesn’t mean that direct instruction has now suddenly become a poor strategy; it is a very useful strategy and should be part of every teacher’s repertoire.  However, the impact of reciprocal teaching and metacognitive strategies is also very high and these should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire as well.

Whilst accepting some subject procedural skills and “habits of mind” may not easily transferable, from one disciple or subject domain to another, this does negate their value within the subject.  They help produce a disciplined mind and an understanding of key ways of working.

Moving to A Different Jungle

Joe Kirby in a very well argued and respectful post, Why We Shouldn’t Close Down the Skills Knowledge Debate, kindly suggested that myself, Alex Quigley and Tom Sherrington were moderators and mediators.  His argument was interesting and summarised his opposition to our perspective with reference to one student thinking 20% of one hundred was 20 and another thinking it was 30 doesn’t mean the answer is 25!

I think Alex, Tom and my position and perspective is not one of compromise, moderation or mediation, we are not interested in maintaining the status quo.  We would consider ourselves (rightly or wrongly) quite radical in our thinking.  We reject certain aspects of both the knowledge and skills only positions and fully embrace other elements.

It is a different curriculum, a different student and a different future we are trying to co-create.

The Three Golden Strands

If you want to strengthen three golden threads then intertwine them.

Factual and conceptual knowledge, procedural and metacognitive knowledge and a moral compass are interdependent elements.  Some skills are transferable and when taught within a cognitively challenging curriculum act as accelerators of learning and increase achievement.  If we want educated citizens in the 21st Century to be consumers, communicators and creators of knowledge then the knowledge versus skills debate is a false dichotomy, it isn’t “or” it is “and”.  Intertwining the best elements of both requires different thinking and a different debate.

Bring on #Vis2040, it is the right debate, in the right jungle and will require new thinking from us all.



23 thoughts on “Education for Wisdom

  1. I really like this blog. It just feels ………right.

    Posted by mrbenney | December 14, 2013, 12:15 pm
  2. Brilliant post perfectly crafted.

    A blogpost called “Education for wisdom” that does what it says on the tin.

    A joy to read, thank you.

    Posted by bt0558 | December 14, 2013, 7:34 pm
  3. ‘what an educated person in the 21st Century should be?’

    Perhaps it would have been useful to define the current state of affairs and address the differences. One of the problems is that we do not know what the future holds for our learners; one model that has been suggested to me is given the rise in automation and robotics the number of people usefully occupied in what we currently identify as a job or profession will be significantly reduced. How will we then be expected to prepare people for life?

    We also need to look at the hang-up that our current education system has with the certification of a limited number of intelligences and perhaps take this crossroads in our thinking as an opportunity to celebrate the rich variety of skills and abilities that young learners bring into the education sytem and reflect one how few of them are certificated by that system.

    But at least there is now the means to have an open debate and hopefully those responsible for change will enlist as much support as possible and also develop a system where opportunities for monitoring, evaluation and reflection are embedded, regular and statutory.

    Posted by John V A Eastwood | December 18, 2013, 6:36 am
  4. May I do a thought experiment with you, Stephen? I know a fact and that fact is connected in my brain to two other things that I know well. If I make a third connection, to something else I already know well, are you seeing that as new, constructed knowledge?

    Posted by Peter Blenkinsop (@ManYanaEd) | December 18, 2013, 5:53 pm
    • Dear Peter,

      As ever not quite sure where this is going with you 😉 Which of the knowledge dimensions are you proposing that I consider this under? I would discount factual from your question and with respect to the others it would very much depend on whether your links had created a new insight as a consequence of the third connection i.e. in SOLO terms have you moved from multi-structural to relational thinking or just more multi-structural. Your answer would lie in your response to this.



      Posted by ExecutiveHT | December 18, 2013, 8:07 pm
  5. I know I have commented once but the more I think (and read) about the knowledge v skills debate the more this blog makes sense to me.
    Core knowledge seems to be pushed by many people but who sets this agenda and what slant do they have on it? My philosophy has always been about the whole child and your blog sums it up perfectly. I function pretty well in society yet I know very few of the English counties and my knowledge of the history of our monarchy is (sadly?) lacking. Am I lacking in “cultural capital” or is this just not my cultural capital?
    Please keep sharing your thoughts, I always enjoy reading them!

    Posted by mrbenney | December 26, 2013, 10:07 pm
  6. Hi Stephen

    Some important concerns here and, on the face of it, the desire for wisdom is a no brainer. But, what is it? The temptation is to believe that ‘wisdom’ or a moral compass or however else we seek to describe such an abstract concept might be some sort of content-free attribute that we can teach. My instinct tells me that any such abstract is slippery and, in the end, entirely dependent on content. How can we avoid ‘educated Eichmann’s’ without telling pupils about the holocaust and giving them details of the many atrocities human being have perpetrated over time?

    I know you’re not suggesting this, but the logical end point of this might be for some well meaning head teacher to decide that Wisdom should be on the curriculum and that pupils should have a Wisdom lesson every week. Maybe you *could* do this, but it would only be relevant by giving examples from and learning about the domains of philosophy, history and psychology.

    The problem is, there’s only the one ‘jungle’. We can either try to cultivate our little corner of it as we wish it could be, or we give pupils the cultural capital (the survival skills if you will) to flourish in it as it really is. When you say “Some skills are transferable and when taught within a cognitively challenging curriculum act as accelerators of learning and increase achievement” I’m sympathetic. I might *wish* that it were this way. But it isn’t. The few skills that are transferrable are only transferable by experts, not novices. Novices need to be explicitly taught bodies of meta-cognitive knowledge (see this post: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/what-is-meta-cognition-and-can-we-teach-it/)

    Let’s agree that the idea that anyone is arguing for ‘just’ knowledge or ‘just’ skills is a false dichotomy. But we all operate under assumptions. Often we’re help captive by assumptions we don’t even realise we have. The reason the skills/knowledge dichotomy is real is because the debate is actually this:

    A: Teaching knowledge is more important than than teaching transferable skills
    B: Teaching transferable skills is more important than teaching knowledge

    These position can’t both be right. Saying ‘they’re both equally important’ is intellectually dishonest: our assumptions and beliefs will always privilege one side or other. If we believe knowledge is more important then we will teach pupils explicit knowledge about the Nazis, Stalin and Pol Pot; we will look at the behaviour of US soldiers at My Lai and unpick how and why human being sometimes behave in terrible ways. We might then look at how they knowledge can be applied in pupils’ lives. One outcome of this might be ‘wisdom’, or maybe compassion, but because pupils will know stuff, they’ll be able to think about it. However, if we believe skills are more important, we’ll start by considering how pupils might practically exercise wisdom in the real world; we’ll think about situations and choices where wisdom might be required; we’ll consider what pupils already know to get them to reflect on the choices they’ve made. Then we might show them how these situations and choice have played out over history. The outcome here is that pupils will have spent at least some time thinking about stuff without the langauge and context to really understand how people like Eichmann came into being. We can’t think about what we don’t know. Maybe, by the end of the teaching sequence, both choices might result in broadly similar outcomes. But there’s always an opportunity cost. We will always prioritise one or the other of these choices, because that’s what we most value.

    I hope this explains why I believe this IS an either/or choice. They can’t both be ‘the most important’.

    Thanks, David

    Posted by David Didau | February 2, 2014, 9:48 am
    • Dear David,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to this in such a detailed manner. I genuinely appreciate it and apologies for the delay in approving your comment – it’s been a beautiful sunny day here and a walk along the canal with Mrs LL was this afternoon’s priority. There is so much in what you have said here and in many ways it is a worthy blog post in it’s own right. However, your generosity in contributing to this post allows a much more meaningful exchange that can’t be achieved through separate blog posts or the limitations of twitter.

      Without being presumptuous I sense that there are certain things that we agree on and both hold dear. Factual and conceptual knowledge are important and need to be a key part of the curriculum. Wisdom is important and I agree it cannot be content free. The “content” of the various great examples you propose help illuminate the importance of a moral compass but simply teaching the content is not enough. The fact I know about the Holocaust doesn’t necessarily mean that I will see the horrors in it, this suggests that content (factual and conceptual knowledge) may be a precursor to wisdom but are not sufficient in themselves. More is required than content if Educated Eichmanns are to be avoided.

      I hope no-one ever brings in “Wisdom lessons”. The thought of it leaves me cold. Wisdom is a lifelong journey which starts in the home, must be added to by education and continues in our daily interactions and actions where right judgement is formed, nurtured and reinforced. No “wisdom lessons” in schools is hopefully another point of agreement.

      Metacognitive knowledge needs to be taught and the practise of these skills is part of the drill from novice to master. Whilst I didn’t ever suggest anything different nor did I make this explicit within the post so a really useful reminder for people reading it, thanks.

      I think where we might disagree but I’m open to correction on this is:

      There are two options A) & B) and one has to be more important than the other, that is, there is a right and a wrong answer which forms part of a universal truth (my words not yours). Either knowledge is more important than skills or skills are more important than knowledge and the two different protagonists within this argument insist on a dogmatic approach. Though if I’m honest (in danger of being provocative here I know) the “knowledge is king” camp tend to take this view as it fits with their beliefs.

      Your challenge that I’m being intellectually dishonest is a great one but let me hold up a mirror, for a moment. The answer is A) or B) – I don’t like either answer but you present me with no other option. Why can’t I argue that A and B are equal, think of an option C, D, E … Z to consider? Should we permit this kind of thinking within education or must all children learn the right answer and pass examinations without questioning or adding to future cultural capital as part of changes to this capital that is worthy of transmission? I might be wrong but I wonder whether you meant this in the way it was written – I’ve read many of your blogs and seen numerous twitter exchanges where you tend to be quite questioning and dynamic in your thinking. I don’t sense (but could be wrong) that your class room is merely a place of right & wrong answers – factual and conceptual knowledge is important but not an end point to the educationyou offer young people. This is why the tacit knowledge (skills “to be” a mathematician, scientist or linguist – procedural and metacognitive) as well as subjects’ implicit knowledge (factual & conceptual) are important.

      The jungle of education is long, wide and deep – the challenge for us both is to see it all not just the bit we’re currently in. I think this jungle metaphor might be running out of steam.

      Thanks again for the generous gift of your time in adding to the blog. Feel free to comment on these ramblings.

      Best wishes, Stephen

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | February 2, 2014, 8:23 pm
      • Hi Stephen

        I guess if we’re going to define ‘skills’ as domain specific meta cognition then I don’t really have much to argue against 🙂

        I would add this though: teaching conceptual knowledge is foundational and must come first. We can only make sense of procedural knowledge within the domain we are thinking in: we can only think about what we know. So maybe relative ‘importance’ is a red herring; I’m happy to rest with “content must be our first priority”.

        Over to you!

        Posted by David Didau | February 2, 2014, 8:53 pm
      • I think we have reached a wise conclusion.

        The “watching bubbles” example was my attempt at explaining procedural skills in an absence of challenging content is useless.

        Posted by ExecutiveHT | February 2, 2014, 8:58 pm
  7. A curriculum that is rich and deep in factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge is more likely to achieve these three inter-related aims.

    Posted by riaz017863 | July 27, 2017, 1:22 am


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