Knowledge and skills: How you can achieve both in your school

Written by: Professor Guy Claxton | Published:

There is a virus doing the rounds – it makes people think that knowledge and skills cannot co-habit. Professor Guy Claxton says that ‘both/and’ – not ‘either/or’ – is perfectly possible. He offers some practical reflections for school leaders

There is a nasty bit of mental malware going around in educational circles which says you cannot have it both ways. You cannot do knowledge and rigour and good grades, and at the same time, build those much-vaunted “21st century skills”.

It is a tug-of-war, this virus says: if you are going to aim for “learning to learn”, say, that must necessarily detract – and distract – from the essential business of giving kids the knowledge that will lead to those all-important grades – as well as to ED Hirsch’s famous “cultural literacy”: that incontestable body of core knowledge without which all, and especially disadvantaged, children will flounder.

This is a meme, to use Richard Dawkins’ word: an idea that is good at replicating in people’s minds. It is confusing enough for classroom teachers, most of whom would dearly love to be doing both. They know that grades are needed for access to tertiary education, for example, but that, once enrolled, students’ success depends more on their ability to be resilient and self-organised learners.

School leaders, for their part, feel as if they are being forced to choose between making their school into an exam factory and producing well-rounded young people who do not have the grades.

Well, time to inject a bit of Mr Trump’s cure-all disinfectant into the argument, before any more hard-working teachers and heads come down with the virus.

As Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.” And this is one of the most pernicious.

First of all, it just ain’t true. There are plenty of schools doing both. Look at the Expeditionary Learning Schools in America: getting 100 per cent of their students – many from disadvantaged backgrounds – into good colleges and filling them with curiosity, independence and intellectual self-confidence.

Take Isaac Newton Academy in Ilford, serving a largely low-income neighbourhood. The school pays a great deal of attention to the cultivation of the 52 character traits in its BRIDGES programme – and it is consistently in the top one per cent of schools on Progress 8.

Look at the GCSE results of XP School in downtown Doncaster – all year 11s take both English literature and history, and 84 per cent achieved 9 to 4: way above expectations; 86 per cent of students take the full range of EBacc subjects compared with a local authority average of 27 per cent.

Ofsted says the students at XP are making “outstanding academic progress” and “love coming to school”, where they are taught largely through extended projects (called expeditions) that “address real-world issues and problems that students can relate to and invest in personally; they are packed with academic rigour, and are designed to cover many standards of the national curriculum in depth”. Both/and – not either/or.

In our series of four books on The Learning Power Approach (LPA), I and my colleagues have distilled the accumulating wisdom about “how to have it both ways” from many research and development groups (as well as individual schools and teachers) around the world. Though they often use different terminology, their aim is the same to get results not through constant drilling and resting but the right way, through gradually building capability, confidence and appetite for taking charge of their own learning. With forewords to the books from Carol Dweck, Ron Berger, John Hattie and Michael Fullan, one is an overview, two are practical workbooks for primary and secondary respectively, and the fourth, Powering Up Your School: The learning power approach to school leadership, just out, is for school leaders. As well as research and development from Growth Mindset (Dweck), Expeditionary Learning (Berger), Visible Learning (Hattie) and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (Fullan), the books draw together work on Visible Thinking (Ron Ritchhart), Habits of Mind (Art Costa and Bena Kallick), Teaching for Understanding (David Perkins), and the Learning Skills Curriculum developed at Sea View School on the south coast by James Mannion and Kate McAllister, as well as our own Building Learning Power.

All of these researchers and practitioners have known for some time that it is the classroom ethos that makes the most difference to the development of what we sometimes call “epistemic character” – the ways people characteristically respond to difficulty, frustration and novelty – which lies at the heart of the LPA. You cannot learn curiosity, resilience, ingenuity or thinking on your feet (learning agility) by reading and filling in a worksheet, nor can you teach it just by sticking up what Tom Sherrington calls those “cheesy growth mindset posters” and hoping for the best. Whether you have adventurous or timid learners, dependent or independent ones, reflects the mood music – the cultural undertow – of the classroom, and we now know pretty clearly what the elements are that steer students in one way or the other.

You need clear and unambiguous expectations. You need to make your classroom a safe place to grapple with difficult ideas and procedures (so no one groans when you give a wrong answer in good faith). You need to clearly mark when you want your students to be in learning mode, and when in performance mode (and not let them get stuck in performance mode where learning is slowed). You need challenging activities in which students can learn to moderate the level of difficulty for themselves, so they can stay in the amber or the Goldilocks zone. You need to find time for plenty of what Neil Mercer at Cambridge calls exploratory talk or interthinking. You need a language of learning, so everyone can talk about what the processes, strategies and attributes of effective learning are. And you need ways of assessing that focus not on snapshots of attainment but the trajectory of improvement. It is not difficult to articulate what makes for good Both/And-style teaching.

But it doesn’t work well if the school as a whole is a chequerboard of both/and and either/or styles of teaching. You need a whole-school ethos or students will get confused and the messages will be diluted and obscured. And often, to begin with, schools do have such a hotch-potch of teaching styles.

As long as the children are well-behaved and a teacher is getting decent results, their pedagogy can go unexamined. This is all very well if the only thing we care about are the grades. But if we also care about growing the initiative and self-reliance that all students are going to need, sooner or later, then everyone needs to grow together, and be comfortable with the kind of teaching style I outlined in the last paragraph.

That does not mean a straitjacket that supresses teachers’ flair or personality, it means a general understanding and agreement that a certain kind of atmosphere has to prevail in all classrooms if both powerful knowledge and epistemic character are to flourish.

Getting that agreement requires leadership, and that is where our new book, Powering Up Your School, comes in. I found five school leaders – heads and deputies – who had been successful in navigating that culture change, or better culture-strengthening, journey, and who were willing to share their experience, warts and all, and also their trail-blazing contacts, and help me distil the lessons learnt and the dos and don’ts of this kind of leadership.

We ended up with responses from around 25 schools of all stripes: primary, secondary and special; urban and rural; large and small; maintained and independent; high and low-achieving; in places around the world including England, Ireland, Bangkok and Australia. Key themes emerged. They included:

The need to keep monitoring and adjusting the balance between taking the lead and being democratic (what Professor Dylan Wiliam calls the “tight but loose” tension).

Building collective responsibility among the student body, so that they can “carry” the culture and help to induct (and sometimes select) new staff.

The importance of senior leadership – especially the principal – signalling loud, clear, genuine, frequent and visible support for this pedagogical shift.

Allowing time for discussion and reservations, but then getting a mandate from staff that leaders could work from.

Identifying, supporting and if necessary promoting those colleagues who will be champions and coaches: who are enthusiastic and experienced with this way of teaching, and willing to support others.

Strengthening a staff (all staff, not just teachers) culture of inquiry: a willingness to experiment, question their own practice, be open to new possibilities, and support others.

Protecting staff, as far as possible, from other innovations and demands, and insisting that this will be the only initiative for the foreseeable future.

Once the mandate is obtained, insisting that all staff have to be involved in “trying something”, and holding year and faculty heads to account.

Instituting a school-wide peer-to-peer professional development system that allows for quick dissemination of “good ideas”.

Building leadership capacity in key colleagues so that the new culture will survive the departure of key individuals.

Getting understanding and buy-in from parents and especially governors – ensuring that the latter really “get it” so they do not make bad appointments that will misunderstand or undermine what has been gained.

All in all, our respondents found this journey to be tricky, demanding – but intensely worthwhile. To see children and young people growing in their confidence to speak out, to tackle difficult challenges, and to take greater and greater responsibility for their own learning, as well as deepening their knowledge and understanding of the world, and getting even better grades: what could be more exciting than that?

Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands after any contact with people who might be carrying the “either/or” virus.

  • Guy Claxton is honorary professor of education at the University of Bristol School of Education, visiting professor of education at King’s College London, and emeritus professor of the learning sciences at the University of Winchester Centre for Real-World Learning.

Further information & resources

  • Powering Up Your School: The learning power approach to school leadership is written by Guy Claxton, Jann Robinson, Rachel Macfarlane, Graham Powell, Gemma Goldenberg and Robert Cleary, and published by Crown House Publishing in May 2020:
  • Also from SecEd: Our recent podcast episode on skills and knowledge looks at how we can achieve both, including practical examples of teaching both skills and knowledge effectively and a look at what Ofsted has to say (June 2020):


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