Myth Five – We should teach transferable skills

Posted on 15-06-2013

This blog post summarises chapter 5 of my book Seven Myths about Education. It will be published on March 5th 2014 by Routledge. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here Click here to preorder if you are in the UK, and here if you are in the US.

In this chapter I look at the work of Guy Claxton, Chris Quigley and the RSA Opening Minds Curriculum. They all promote the idea that there are generic skills which it’s possible to teach in the abstract. By teaching pupils such generic skills they will then have them available to transfer to whatever new content they wish. Of course, if this were true it would be a very efficient way of proceeding, but unfortunately it isn’t. Skills are tied to domain knowledge. If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity. Likewise with evaluation, synthesis, explanation and all the other words to be found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When we see people employing what we think of as transferable skills, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.

There’s a nice E.D. Hirsch article about this here (this is the one where he uses the metaphor of skills and knowledge being like a scrambled egg), and a good Herbert Simon article here where he points out that way we use the word skill often begs the question (as with Moliere’s doctor saying that the sleep-inducing properties of opium are caused by its dormitive power).