Knowledge vs. Skills
To the Editor:
Education in America is embroiled in a debate that will impact the character
of our society in the next century. Those of us who have been educated
in such knowledge- based disciplines as physics have much to contribute
to the national dialog if we understand the issues. I joined this debate
as one of the three "Back-to-Basics" candidates in the 1993 Littleton,
Colorado school board election. This election was considered significant
enough to receive national attention in the mainstream  and education
media . As a principal player in the election, I would like to briefly
describe the issues that have implications for the broader education debate.
The Littleton campaign cast outcomes-based education (OBE)--a national
education reform movement --as an issue of whether the schools should
focus on knowledge or on skills. An outcome is defined as "what a student
knows and is able to do." Outcomes, which are referred to as "standards" in
some states and in Goals 2000, have intrinsic appeal until you look at
practical implementation, particularly in the area of assessment.
Standardized tests are cost-effective tools for measuring content knowledge
and for making meaningful predictions of student performance. Many educators
rightfully argue that standardized tests, especially multiple choice tests,
do not adequately measure overall student performance. They propose using
authentic performance assessments. When I taught physics in the university,
I used several types of tests, such as reports, essay questions and open-ended
problem sets. As an industry educator today, I incorporate performance
assessments into my courses. Performance assessments measure the "able
to do" part of an outcome.
It is much more difficult to measure skills or behaviors than content
knowledge. For example, how do you objectively measure higher order thinking
skills? Even in math--probably the most objective of all subjects--I have
seen teachers disagree on the thought processes used by a student to obtain
a correct numerical estimate. It is important to realize that there are
significant technical issues involved in the design and application of
assessments. These issues acquire legal status when used to determine the
future prospects of a student. As pointed out by Mehrens , assessments
used for accountability purposes must be "administratively feasible, professionally
credible, publicly acceptable, legally defensible, and economically affordable".
Use of assessments for high-stakes purposes can be a source of considerable
consternation for community members .
The relative importance of knowledge versus skills is not a new issue.
Lauren Resnick noted5 that educators periodically propose "that process-or
skill-oriented teaching replace knowledge-oriented instruction. In the
past, this has often led to a severe de-emphasis of basic subject matter
knowledge. This, in turn, has had the effect of alienating many subject
matter specialists, creating pendulum swings of educational opinion in
which knowledge-oriented and process-oriented programs periodically displace
As a physicist , I value knowledge-oriented instruction, but not to
the exclusion of skill development. I agree with Resnick's observation
 that higher order thinking skills should be embedded within the context
of a traditional academic discipline such as the core academic courses
identified by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning .
I support an educational system which provides equal educational opportunities
for all students. I do not support systems--such as OBE--which seek to
guarantee equal educational results for all students. Even if we agree
that all children can learn, we do not know that all children can or will
achieve a high level of proficiency in a broad range of areas, regardless
of how much time they have. As noted by Mortimer Adler , "Equality of
opportunity for all conforms to the equality of all as human beings. The
inequality of results that should be expected conforms to the individual
inequalities that exist despite equal opportunity."
The question about the minimum level of learning for all students has
been raised [10,11] as just one of many legitimate concerns about OBE.
Some reform-minded groups claim that such concerns are only voiced by the
religious right. This strategy is as repugnant as asserting that supporters
of OBE all belong to the humanist left . Legitimate concerns need to
be respected and should be addressed using techniques such as those proposed
by Carnine .
The common perception of educational reform as being nothing more than
a pendulum swing from one fad to another [5,13] is reinforced when reforms
are implemented without a proper research base. Indeed, one strategy that
is promoted by some educators is that controversial programs should simply
be repackaged under a new name . From my perspective as a person trained
in the research oriented discipline of physics , I view attempts to
retain controversial programs by simply selling them under a different
name as politically expedient and professionally unethical. The advantages
and disadvantages of reforms should be presented to the public using such
professionally appealing techniques as those of Woolfolk  or Ellis
and Fouts . Based on my experience, people are more willing to accept
reforms that have been successfully demonstrated using pilot programs with
Most of the Littleton community has learned that reasonable people can
reasonably disagree. Substantial differences of opinion remain in our community,
and in the nation, about the best way to educate our children. As scientists,
we can and should contribute our ideas about professionalism, objectivity,
and fairness to this debate.
John R. Fanchi
1. V. Carroll, "In Littleton, Colo., Voters Expel Education Faddists," The
Street Journal (18 November 1993).
2. E. Seif, "Learning from Littleton, Colorado," Education Week (14 September
1994), pg. 36.
3. L. Chio-Kenney, The School Administrator (September 1994), pg. 11.
4. W.A. Mehrens, "Using Performance Assessment for Accountability Purposes," Educational
Measurement: Issues and Practice (Spring, 1992), pp. 3-9.
5. L. B. Resnick, Education and Learning to Think (National Academy Press, Wash.
DC, 1987), pg. 49.
6. J. R. Fanchi, Parametrized Relativistic Quantum Theory (Kluwer, Dordrecht,
7. L. B. Resnick, ibid., pg. 48.
8. National Education Commission on Time and Learning, Prisoners of Time (US
Govt. Printing Office, Wash. DC, 1994), pg. 30.
9. M. J. Adler, The Paideia Program (MacMillan, New York, 1984), pg. 3.
10. L. Chio-Kenney, The School Administrator (September 1994), pg. 12.
11. B. R. Worthen, Phi Delta Kappan (February 1993), pg. 445.
12. R. A. Baer, Jr., "Religious Right 'Scapegoating' Obscures Secular
Threats," Education Week (December, 1994), pp. 39 and 40.
13. D. Carnine, Direct Instruction News (Spring 1992), pp. 25-35.
14. L. Chio-Kenney, The School Administrator (September 1994), pg. 14.
15. A. E. Woolfolk, Educational Psychology (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs,
1990), 4th ed.
16. A. K. Ellis and J. T. Fouts, Research on Educational Innovations (Eye on
Education, Princeton Junction, NJ, 1993).