The PPTA’s Tom Haig wrote a useful blog on Friday framing the debate that’s currently shaping up about our ‘world-leading’ curriculum.

As Tom says, ‘to grossly oversimplify’, the argument is between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills,’ and ‘polarising rhetoric can be unhelpful, but it’s a disservice to our children not to think seriously about curriculum, and part of that means expressing and teasing out differences’.

I agree. And in the name of ensuring this debate continues productively I write to pre-empt one common pitfall.

Discussions like these can sometimes fizzle prematurely when someone states that knowledge and skills ‘represent a false binary; surely we should just do both!’

A generic brush-off

In education debates, “x and y represent a false binary; surely we should just do both!’ is often effective in discouraging discussion. For this reason, it is most often employed by those whose positions currently dominate – let’s call them the incumbents.

When I am the incumbent, it is often tempting to dismiss discussions that challenge my position. By engaging in them, I run the risk of revealing my position, which, though held wholeheartedly, is exactly that – just a position on a spectrum – and therefore requiring of evidence-based justification.

Take internal vs. external assessments as an example. Some teachers, including me, will identify with, or judge the latter superior. However, when challenged to explain how external assessment can ever work for a science practical, I will happily explain that ‘of course, there will always be some areas for which internals are preferable.’ This ends the conversation without disturbing my default or hidden bias towards external assessments.

Another example might be teacher vs. student-led learning. Some teachers will identify with or judge the latter more effective. However, when challenged to explain how this works in practice or when observed directing students in their classes, they may counter with something like “of course I still ‘lead’ my students, I just do it in ways that also empower and engage them, so they have ownership and agency over their learning.” This ends the conversation without forcing the teacher to justify their default bias towards student-led learning.

And while it can be enticing to accept these woolly, catch-all compromises, by doing so we dodge the essential, underlying questions about what are the most effective approaches to teaching, assessment and designing curricula.

Why knowledge and skills are not actually choices

To return now to the debate about knowledge and skills; unlike many debates in education, which are about locations on a spectrum, it is unhelpful to perceive knowledge and skills in this way.

Most of us agree that the end goal of education should be a range of useful skills, like literacy, numeracy, communication and critical thinking. But how best to achieve them?

To use language taken from Christodoulou (chapter 2), the dominant approach to skill development (encouraged by Ministry of Education publications like the NZC and TKI website) is the ‘generic skills’ method.

Under this method, because we want students to be able to solve real-world problems, read real books and think critically about the world around them, teachers are encouraged to set up activities in classrooms that provide opportunities to practise these things. Hence the emphasis on project, inquiry and problem based learning, the dominance of whole-language approaches to reading, and the encouragement of activities and cross-curricular courses that reflect real situations.

Christodoulou counters this by describing the ‘deliberate practice’ approach under which, perhaps counterintuitively, skills are taught and developed indirectly. Teachers, curriculum designers, and teaching resources break down the final skills into their component parts and sequence the teaching and practice so that students are supported, over time, to achieve the final skills.

For example, to develop students’ skills in critical reading, they might practise recalling the phonetic code, blending and segmenting words, and learning vocabulary and knowledge about history, art and science. To develop skills in mathematical problem-solving students might spend significant time learning times tables and number bonds. Or to develop students’ creative writing and communication skills they might be expected to memorise parts of poems and extracts from famous speeches.

Under this ‘deliberate practice’ approach, lessons mostly look very different to the final skills the teacher aims to develop. However, the final product is more grounded in solid foundations and therefore much more lasting.

In fact, the ‘deliberate practice’ approach to teaching and learning is already well established and accepted in the sporting world. For example, typically in developing skilled footballers, coaches will give most of their training sessions over to practising ball-drills, fitness exercises and specific tactics. It is only at the end of a training session, or a season of preparation that all the component skills will be brought together on the pitch.

However, unfortunately, nowadays, what appears like a perfect storm of ideas have conspired to leave ‘deliberate practice’ relatively out in the cold.

Some of these include:

  • the strong competency focus in the NZ curriculum
  • the repeated calls by employers for ‘skilled’ employees, and the marketing of companies meeting the demand for skills-based training
  • the dominance of accountability structures such as NCEA, which, especially in lieu of adequate progression models in the NZC, leads teachers to focus on teaching to assessments rather than a subjects’ curriculum
  • the availability of materials (g. exemplars, past papers that change little year to year, or internal assessments) that enable ‘success’ in NCEA without students ever needing to commit underpinning knowledge to long-term memory (see chapter 4 of Spoiled by Choice)
  • an unrealistic expectation in the NZC that teachers have time to be both teachers and curriculum-designers (and not only within their subject areas but across them!)
  • The NZC’s emphasis on curriculum integration which is further encouraged by resources such as these
  • the seductive (sometimes ed-tech-driven) emphasis on personalisation, relevance, and reflecting students’ contexts, which undermines the perceived value of pre-sequenced progression models and expert-written curriculum resources
  • Justifications for project/problem/activity based approaches that rely on their superior capacity to ‘engage’ students. Engagement itself is a poor proxy for actual learning, and while engaging students is an essential part of the teachers’ job, other criteria are more important when selecting content and pedagogy.

And so, saying to schools or teachers that they need to teach skills is like telling a student they need to be a better footballer or a comedian that they need to be funnier. It may be accurate, but it is not particularly helpful.

And when it leads teachers to take time away from teaching knowledge and to use it instead for practising skills, the chances are that it will do very little to increase students’ skills.

To close, I am not suggesting that skilled footballers only ever practise drills, fitness and tactics, and never bring it all together before the real match. That would be absurd. It would be equally absurd for a teacher to drill all the components of chemistry and never give their students time to use and apply their knowledge in practical experiments or mock questions before the assessment.

However, I am hoping that as we embark on this wonderful conversation, we can start from a position that recognises knowledge as the route, not an alternative, to skilled performance.

If you’re interested in the curriculum conversation, check-out researchEDNZ – which is coming to Auckland on Saturday 2nd June. For just $40 (which includes a packed lunch!) you can hear from some of New Zealand, Australia and England’s most experienced and thought-provoking curriculum thinkers, and many, many more….

Briar Lipson is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative.

Want more of the latest sector news, information, opinion and discussion straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletters now:


  1. Yes. No such thing as a generic skill, unfortunately for those trying to promote them. As for deliberate practice, other domains come to mind too, music for example. Nice article.

  2. Thanks for the article Briar, the football analogy is an interesting one. Is the game the examination at the end of the year? In which case drilling content and skills to pass the exam seems apt. However, if the aim of the game is to prepare our learners for an uncertain world where the game may not be football is this the right approach or do we need more nuance?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here