Some Thoughts about Skills-Based Curricula

I hear a lot of talk about skills-based curricula in Scotland these days, with the general vibe being that skills-based curricula are a Good Thing™. I'm not entirely clear what people mean by a skills-based curriculum, because it is one of those phrases which has slipped into the common parlance of educators without any clear definition (see also "learner conversations"). Try searching on the Education Scotland website for "skill based curriculum" and you'll draw a blank. I guess it means a curriculum defined in terms of the competencies being developed by our learners: a curriculum defined in terms of the things we want our learners to be able to do, rather than what they know.

I can see the appeal of this, but I am wary. Here are a couple of things which would worry me if they were true:

1.  Is this curriculum seeking to develop generic, transferable skills?

If so, we really need to distinguish between actual skills which are applicable in a range of contexts (such as being able to speak clearly, spell accurately, read well, be punctual, perform arithmetic, understand basic statistics etc.) and so-called "generic transferable skills" such a problem solving, critical thinking or creativity. The former are vital and should rightly be prioritised in a curriculum. The latter don't exist outwith specific domains of knowledge. If you are surprised to hear that, read this.

2. Does this curriculum prioritise skills development above the building of long-term knowledge?

If so, it fails to recognise that "in every domain that has been explored, considerable knowledge has been found to be an essential prerequisite to expert skill"? ("Expert and Novice Performance in Solving Physics Problems" -- Larkin, McDermott, Simon and Simon -- 1979-1980). Skills such as problem solving, creativity and critical thinking do, of course, exist. But they are developed by individuals within specific domains of knowledge, and rely upon the development of a considerable body of knowledge within that domain. It is nonsense to imagine that the expert problem solving skills I have developed within the domain of mathematics will in any way equip me to be a good problem solver in the world of graphic design, say. This article by Daniel Willingham looks at the challenges of teaching critical skills. If the curriculum recognises the importance of knowledge acquisition, focuses on that and then proceeds to provide learners with opportunities to apply their knowledge meaningfully, then it has a good chance of genuinely developing skills.

I am all in favour of a curriculum which focuses on the things learners end up being able to do, but such a curriculum must recognise that the principal means of increasing skill is to increase domain-specific knowledge. It is interesting to note that this message is entirely commonplace and mainstream in England, but is rarely voiced in Scotland.

Much of the work in Scotland on skills development is entirely rational and worthwhile. Take this example from Castlebrae, for example. The programme clearly understands that skills exist within domains of knowledge, and seeks to clarify what these important skills are, so that teachers can provide opportunities to develop them. The cross-curricular skills it identifies relate to literacy, numeracy and health-and-wellbeing. These all fall into the "former" category I identified earlier.

But schools only have 27.5 hours per week. Time spent on try to develop skills such as critical thinking in the abstract rather than within a specific domain of knowledge is time wasted, and there is no time to waste.


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