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Pedagogical analysis around the world is filled with a variety of critiques on the balance between the learning of knowledge and the learning of skills, where polarised views are often pitched against each other. In real terms within our education systems, is it this black and white? Is it one or the other?  

The answer is not simple and is a balance between the two which flexes in different contexts and situations. But rather than tackling this directly, let us consider the importance of the skills themselves, what we mean by skills, and then explore how a skills-versus-knowledge balance might work. 

  • In the context of STEM education, what do we mean by skills?

Each subject specialism teaches a core skillset which is relevant to that subject matter. In this case, the context of those skills is directly related to the requirements of that specialism. For example, in D&T we teach hand-tooling skills, sketching skills, digital design skills; in science, we teach skills on practical methodology, dissection, and the safe use of chemicals. These skills have generally existed since those subjects were first established and have evolved alongside the advancement of technologies in the equipment we use.  

Without dismissing or diluting those practical, subject-related skills, our industries are calling out for the development of a broader skillset – a skill set that applies to multiple contexts and translates across a variety of subject matters.

These skills have been given many names – least of all, the demeaning term “soft skills”, but also known as 21st-century learning skills and workplace-readiness skills.

Regardless of the term used, they all reflect an ethos of adaptability, accountability and originality that is required to solve complex, socio-technical problems that we are yet to face.  


  • What are these skills?

These skills are often grouped further into collectives, but again, they largely follow the same theme. The World Economic Forum presents them in their ‘The Future of Jobs Report 2020’ and UNESCO refer to them as ‘competence-based skills’ in their report, ‘Future Competences and the Future of Curriculum’. 

There has been much written on the 4Cs (Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking – also sometimes extended to 6Cs or 7Cs) and the 3Rs (Risk Taking, Resilience, and Reflectiveness), but they all tend to include the following key elements:  

Creativity – the ability to use your imagination, nurture original ideas and make something (whether tangible or intangible).

Problem-solving – the ability to fix things – whether physical, technical, sociological, political, environmental; or even conceptual or hypothetical – using tools such as “five whys” and root cause analysis to develop a deep sense of curiosity.  

Communication  – linked to many of the skills above, communication skills are essential for human beings to interact efficiently and effectively – across a variety of situations and contexts. Whether it is the ability to present a new solution to a room of peers, negotiate a working group through a set of problems towards making a decision, or translate an original concept or idea to a different specialist area within an organisation, the ability to communicate accurately and concisely is highly valued.  

All these skills are inherently linked, not just by their “soft”, less tangible nature, but also by the fact that they are not easily measured. However, there is an importance from industries around the world, who accept today’s students into their workplaces, which suggests we cannot ignore them simply because measurement is tricky.  

Working relationships  workplaces and personal lives require people to work in different ways; individually, in small groups, in large groups; often involving several different dynamics.   

Emotional intelligence  – the ability to recognise and control your own emotions as well as read those of others to build positive environments and scenarios, in which you can live and thrive amongst others.

To varying degrees, we as humans require an element of control and empowerment within our natural chaotic environments.  

Entrepreneurship  – a set of skills that allow you to understand commercial viability (whether a product or service solution), which can work financially within the commercial nature of most local and global economies.

Although many of these skills are linked to risk, entrepreneurship is directly linked to the appreciation and management of financial risk, both personally and professionally.  

  • How do we nurture workplace-readiness in schools?

Continuing from the difficulty of their measurement, the ultimate solution must include a top-down approach – not just measuring school and student performance by exam sessions and non-examined assessments and submissions, but by other metrics which consider a student’s rounded, personal, and skill-related development.  

Many schools achieve skills development through different structures; by providing real-world context to topics, employing a project-based approach, and by actively developing a facilitation methodology that nurtures students through a process of self-led discovery. These approaches are largely validated by industry and reflect styles of working those students will encounter as they progress from the classroom into the workplace.  

TSL_student 3D printing_00

  • In conclusion…

The tussle between knowledge-based and skills-based learning will likely end in a balance – resulting in having enough information and knowledge which provides the context to develop a relevant skill set; a skillset that allows a student to adapt and navigate around a rapidly evolving world. In turn, the solution is then based on personalisation and differentiated learning – recognising that students have different needs to build their futures.  

  • Find out how you can better develop these skills with optimised learning spaces by talking to our talented design team.

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