I was wrong about Maffs…

I’ve probably always been uncomfortable with the premise that some subjects are described as knowledge-based and some skills-based. As an English teacher I know I’ve said this at times. ‘English is more skills based therefore we are different to Maths or Science or…’ It’s ludicrous really. It not only weakens an argument for genuine creativity but undermines the abilities of our pupils. For is it not the case that skills are fairly impossible without knowledge; therefore knowledge on its own is hugely important if we want our children to develop into skilled human beings? It seems to me that the Curriculum for Excellence requires some clarity on this matter.

The documents, the experiences and outcomes, the very things that have many of us tearing out grey hairs out in frustration were deliberately written as ‘Can do’ expressions. For example, from the English and Literacy Listening and Talking strands:

‘As I listen or watch, I can:

  • identify and give an accurate account of the purpose and main concerns of the text, and can make inferences from key statements
  • identify and discuss similarities and differences between different types of text
  • use this information for different purposes.        LIT 3-04a’


This all makes perfect sense, I would have thought, but it might not be as simple as that. That a pupil can do any of these things in a one off lesson might be good but I would be more comfortable if they could do them again and again, getting better every time. I’m not convinced we’re at the stage where that happens just yet.

So it is at this point that I sheepishly return to my old school nemesis: Maths. What bamboozled me about Maths at the time was the seemingly unnecessary repetition of problems which I could clearly solve after the  first two or three. The horror of completing pages full of these drove me crazy. However, is there a better example of real learning than that? The embedding of ‘I can…’ strategies which took us beyond the surface level of ‘I can do it today’ ? The challenge should come when we take that  knowledge and teach pupils how and why Maths is important and how they may develop that knowledge into skills.

As an English teacher I get frustrated when children are attempting to create pieces of imaginative written work when they clearly have trouble with the basics. The awareness of how language works comes from an awareness of the structure of expert writing and an embedded knowledge of basic grammatical structures. No-one can be naturally creative. We learn the rules and then, and only then, can we break them to become creative. Skills come from knowledge, therefore that knowledge must be the key. However, the challenge of CfE comes when we try to turn that knowledge into skills in every subject.

The new curriculum in Scotland is an ongoing project which will be difficulty to assess in the short term. But surely one of the aims needs to be the development of our children into knowledgable AND skilled human beings in every subject they study. And that might mean that sometimes, like me all those years ago in Maths, they need to get used to being bored. When I teach conjunctions and prepositions it might indeed be necessarily ‘boring’ for a time. The pay off should come when they display that they ‘Can do’ it. When they can, we should move heaven and earth to develop their creativity.

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