Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.

I suggest that the current knowledge versus skills debate is, at its heart, no more than a Big-endian versus Little-endian debate.

I started thinking about these issues after reading Daisy Christodoulou’s recent blogpost. I think I agree with two of the main points that she put forward: that (1) the so-called “knowledge vs. skills” is a false dichotomy; and (2)

people who say that it’s a false dichotomy go on to make what I think is a further misconception. They say – ‘we should teach both’ or that ‘we should have a balance – let’s make sure we don’t get too knowledge heavy/too skills heavy’ … The other semantic problem this gives rise to is that when I talk about teaching knowledge, a lot of people worry that I am not concerned about skills. I am absolutely concerned with skills. The end point of education should be to produce skilled individuals. My point is that the best way to achieve that aim is not to teach skills; it’s to teach knowledge.

I would perhaps go a little further still. Although the word skill and the word knowledge are useful in many contexts to express nuances of meaning (e.g. he is a skilled footballer as compared with he is knowledgeable about football), I am not sure that they actually refer to different cognitive realities.

When a person makes a claim to knowledge, I believe that they are claiming some form of demonstrable ability. If the Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance says that “I know the kings of England” then we are quite within our rights to say, “Go on, then, name them.” If the Major-General can go on to list the kings of England then we might conclude “Yep, he really does know them.”

I believe that the salient point is that a claim to knowledge is not assessed by reference to any sort of brain- or cognitive-state, but rather to the successful demonstration of an ability to do something. As a consequence, I think that the opposition of skills and knowledge is not only unhelpful and a false dichotomy, as Christodoulou points out, but is actually something worse.

I think that those who seek to distinguish between skills and knowledge on a fundamental level are relying on a false model of how the human mind works. I believe that it is a mistake to think of the mind as a blank slate onto which facts or knowledge are written on the brain, like sentences on a page. This model suggest that intelligent actions consist of interpreting these sentences (howsoever encoded in the brain) and changing and applying them to the real world. In other words, gaining knowledge is no big deal since the propositions that encode them just sit there in the brain until an active intellectual agent grabs them and uses them.

Champions of the [intellectualist] legend are apt to try and re-assimilate knowing how to knowing that by arguing that intelligent performance involve the observance of rules, or the application of criteria. It therefore follows that the operation which is characterized as intelligent must be preceded by an intellectual acknowledgement of these rules or criteria.

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949), pp.29-30

To put it bluntly, those who argue that there is a fundamental distinction between skills (knowing how, in Ryle’s phrasing) and knowledge (knowing that) are succumbing to the ‘intellectualist legend’.

… the absurd assumption made by the intellectualist legend is this, that a performance of any sort inherits all its title to intelligence from some anterior internal operation of planning what to do … It is also notoriously possible for us to plan shrewdly and perform stupidly, i.e. to flout our precepts in our practice. By the original argument, therefore, our intellectual planning process must inherit its title to shrewdness from yet another interior process of planning to plan, and this process could in its turn be silly or shrewd. The regress is infinite, and this reduces to absurdity the theory that for an operation to be intelligent it must be steered by a prior intellectual operation … When I do something intelligently, i.e. thinking what I am doing, I am doing one thing and not two.

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949) p.32 [emphasis mine]

The point argued by Ryle is that a dichotomy between so-called skills and knowledge presupposes some form of homunculus reading sentences from the book of the brain and deciding how, when and where to put them into action. That model of the mind leads to an infinite regress: how does the homunculus make up its mind? Does it have an even smaller homunculus deciding on its course of action, and that homunculus have an even smaller homunculus, and so on…?

In short, I am suggesting that the thoughtful teacher regard the entire knowledge vs. skills debate as a ‘category-mistake’ based on an old and discredited model of the operation of mind.

This is not to say that word skill is to be outlawed. It is a useful word that I will continue to use for appropriate emphasis and nuance. What I hope is that I will have persuaded other teachers to avoid thinking of knowledge and skill as two completely separate entities that are in opposition to each other, but rather as different ‘ends’ of the same ‘egg’ — the golden egg of learning, if you will.

I will leave the last word to Jonathan Swift:

During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca … accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels [my emphasis]



Filed under Education, Philosophy

10 responses to “Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

  1. This is a really good post and a concise one about this tussle.

  2. ijstock

    Excellent post – I think you’ve nailed it. I suspect that the skills agenda was originated by people with an anti-academic/elitist agenda – skills appear superficially more democratic and ‘relevant’ than knowledge, which can be used to exclude people who don’t know the ‘right’ things. In fact, the same can be said of skills of course.

  3. Reblogged this on e=mc2andallthat and commented:

    My take on the knowledge vs. skills debate…

  4. Yes! Absolutely! A nonsensical debate.
    I like the way you bring in other words associated with learning – skill, knowledge, shrewdness, intelligence – may I add sense (common or otherwise)? These words all go towards explaining different aspects of ‘learning’ which all contribute to what we are working towards: the individual who is educated to such a degree as to make their way independently in the world, and reach their own potential such that they stand the best chances of ‘success’ or ‘happiness’ (however we want to categorise that!!!).

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