Knowledge and/or/versus skills

I am interrupting the flow of assessment blogs to pontificate upon a matter which seems to roll round and round, like thunder trapped in a valley, that of knowledge and/or/versus skills.

For some reason there seems to be an almost constant stream of blogs and tweets from non-music teachers arguing about skills and knowledge. If you have been lucky enough to miss these, a brief summary of the positions taken in these would be:

a)    Skills are important, knowledge is ever shifting, and we can just look things up on the internet

b)    Skills are irrelevant, knowledge is all that matters, and knowing about things means remembering them

Now, these are over-simplified polar extremes, couched in the language of their opponents. Type A exponents talk of the rise of the internet, the networked culture, and team-working. Type B champions are concerned with knowing ‘the basics’, and say that you cannot be creative, or be able to contribute to society without having acquired a grasp of core knowledge in the domain. Type A blogs extol Ken Robinson (eg see ), Type B value E D Hirsch (inter alia Hirsch, 1987).

But as a music educator, this arguing leaves me cold, especially as it often becomes about demolishing a straw-man. In music education we have known (sorry!), probably for ever, that in order to demonstrate musicking one needs both skills and knowledge. For example, I cannot play the clarinet. I can have one of those fingering books in my pocket so if a child asks me how to play a C# I can look it up and tell them, but I cannot make a sound on the thing myself. In other words I know how to play a C#, but I don’t know how to play a C#, if you see what I mean! (distinctions between types of knowledge in music education is covered to some extent in my assessment book ( This is a combination of knowledge and skill. I can play a C# on the double bass, however, (and a number of other instruments too) where the required combination of skill and knowledge are in my grasp.

To carry on talking about me (sorry again). I conduct an amateur G&S group in Birmingham ( where I both know how to conduct in 4/4 time, and have the skills (I hope) to not have to overly concentrate on baton-waving, but on doing more musical things instead.

To put this into the classroom context, musical music lessons (Swanwick, 1999) involve doing, creating, learning, and making music. Even our National Curriculum for music joins up the dots, and places knowledge and skills as jointly central:

Pupils should build on their previous knowledge and skills through performing, composing and listening. (DfE, 2013)

To trace a little of the history of this, we can go back a long way, but let us start with two significant figures in UK Music Education, Paynter and Swanwick. Paynter, back in 1970 (Paynter & Aston, 1970), was urging music teachers to experiment with composing, and develop the creative music making of all children and young people in school. (Swanwick, 1979) presented us with his CLASP model for music education – Composing, Literature Studies, Audiation, Skill acquisition, Performing. Fast-forward nearly thirty years, and we have the secondary national strategy (DfES, 2006) showing a ‘basic model of musical understanding’ for KS3 classroom music:

 SecStrat Model of Musical Understanding

(DfES, 2006 p.6)

which clearly integrates skill (bottom right box) with knowledge (top left) leading to the goal of musical understanding. All clear, logical, and although we can discuss its nuances, relatively uncontentious for what it says.

So, as music educators, I feel we are yet again ahead of the game here. We understand skills and knowledge. We ‘get it’. And many of our colleagues don’t. Once more, I feel music educators are in the vanguard of things, but yet again no one has really noticed. Oh well!


DfE (2013) Music programmes of study: key stage 3, London, Departent for Education. https://

DfES (2006) ‘Secondary National Strategy: Foundation subjects: KS3 music.  Unit 1: Structuring learning for musical understanding’. In DfES (Ed), Department for Education and Skills.

Hirsch, E. D. (1987) ‘Cultural literacy: What every literate American needs to know’. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Paynter, J. & Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Swanwick, K. (1979) A basis for music education, Windsor: NFER-Nelson.

Swanwick, K. (1999) Teaching music musically, London, Routledge.

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