In 1971, Isabel Briggs Myers wrote an essay on type theory and the difference between skills and knowledge. In essence, she was describing why public education is so disappointing for most children and how true damage can be done to children who are not interested in what’s being taught. While every child needs to be taught basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, knowledge is a very personal choice. What interests one child, will not interest every other. A basic understanding of the difference between skills and knowledge is necessary to understand how, as parents, we can nurture our children’s creativity and thirst for knowledge from home.
So what is the difference between skills and knowledge? In our own education, few of us, if any, were told or learned the difference in our educational travels. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all skills. Knowledge, on the other hand, is based in what we read and choose to remember. What interests us most is what we remember. Few of us remember what year Pope Urban began the Second Crusade or the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but a microbiologist will have no problem memorizing hundreds of strains of bacteria and an engineer will have dozens of engineering equations in his or her head. Knowledge is endless. You could read a book every day for the rest of your natural life and retain a very small fraction of the knowledge that exists in the world. It is easy, then, to see the challenge facing the public school system. In a typical classroom, thirty to forty students with varying interests are taught whatever fraction of knowledge the school selects for that year. It is this arbitrary selection of knowledge that frustrates and bores children. It also makes repeated hits to children’s self-esteem because they don’t retain this knowledge as easily as they would if it interested them, through no fault of their own.
The teaching of skills in public schools is also in need of help. When children are taught phonics, they have the tools to identify sounds in words and figure out how to say those words. Phonics is the tool they use to develop their vocabulary and their treasure trove of words. Many public schools have shied away from phonics and gone back to memorization, without teaching children the connection between phonics and being able to make words from those sounds. Phonics is also essential to the skill of writing, as it makes it easier to put words together and spell them phonetically, making it meaningful to whoever reads it. When children are taught how to write, they can convey meaning and messages in the combination of words and sentences they choose to use. The ability to apply pen or pencil to paper and make it meaningful is a skill.
Arithmetic is also a skill. When children are taught to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide with pennies, toothpicks, or any other object, they have the skills to balance a checkbook, budget their money, and go on to learn higher math. Most public schools have incorporated manipulatives and hands-on counting into their early math programs. Working with objects early on makes it much easier for children to visualize math and the way to find a solution later when they encounter word problems and algebra. It is important that children be taught math through objects and figuring it out themselves, rather than told to memorize numbers, multiplication tables, and other facts. Children don’t excel in math until they have the skill, the ability to find the answers themselves. While most adults don’t know the answer to 215 multiplied by 345, they can figure it out on a piece of paper with minimal time. All they need is the skill to manipulate the numbers one through ten.
There are many things parents can do at home to help educate their children in the basic skills. An easy way to develop the three basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic is to devote half an hour to an hour each night with your children spent teaching them phonics, how to write the alphabet, and playing basic math games with pennies or other objects. There are many books on phonics out there and writing can be made more fun by buying colorful papers to write on and novelty pencils. Make a game of it, if you can. Write a letter to relatives and see whose letter gets there first or whose letter contains the most uses of the word ‘dear’. To make a math game, find three die, blank die are preferable, but if you can’t find any blanks, use regular die. On one dice, tape over the numbers 1 through 6 and write on the tape the operations +, -, and X. Leave one dice alone, with the numbers 1 through 6. On the remaining dice, tape over the numbers 1 through 6 and write on the tape the numbers 7, 8, and 9 (each number will be written twice). The game is played by taking turns throwing the dice and calculating the answer to the problem that appears. If the die are thrown and ‘9’, ‘2’, and ‘+’ appear, then the equation to solve is ‘9 + 2’. This game can easily be adjusted to fit your child’s current math skills and broaden their abilities, adding more die for complexity. For younger children, you may want to stick with die that are numbered 1 to 6 only and provide 36 pennies for them to use in computing the answers. Encourage children to take their time with the pennies or other objects and see for themselves what the solution is. Even better, have them make an educated guess what the answer will be and then find out if it’s right by counting out the pennies. This repetitive process is how the basic fundamental skills in math are ingrained in us and enable us to do these calculations in our heads later on.
Teaching your children knowledge is much easier than teaching skills (at least in my opinion). Find out what interests your child most and help them search on the internet in that subject area. Check out a library book on the subject, or do a hands-on activity. If you repeatedly do this with your children you will prepare them for life and for college.
More importantly, doing these little things shows your children how to find the information they’re looking for. They will go off to high school and college with computer skills, library skills, and the ability to explore our natural environment. The more you do with your children to expand their knowledge, the more they will learn and the more life skills they will acquire. A wonderful side effect is that they will become avid readers for life and will have a lifelong thirst for knowledge. What more could you give your children?