Using a Skills Based Curriculum instead of Knowledge Based

What is the difference between a skills-based and knowledge-based curriculum?

First, let’s start with defining what a curriculum is. A curriculum informs the goal at the end of a course. It’s a list of things that you must achieve by the end of the course for it to be successful.

A knowledge-based curriculum – It’s all about what you know

A knowledge-based curriculum typically involves a lot of memorization. Examples include passing a spelling test, memorizing the dates of famous events in history, taking a quiz on everything that happened in a novel, or relaying back every use for a chemical.

It is worksheet and test based. Grading is objective. The answers are either right or they are wrong. This has been the norm in teaching for decades.

Why was a knowledge-based curriculum the norm?

For a long time, many students and teachers didn’t have an alternative to a knowledge-based curriculum. Before the invention of smartphones, if you wanted to know things, you had to memorize them. There wasn’t a supercomputer in your pocket; you either had the knowledge memorized or you hiked your way to the nearest library and spent a few hours browsing through books.

Back then, nobody had an option to back up their memories with tech.

The main problem with a knowledge-based curriculum is this: all the memorized information in the world is useless if you can’t do anything with it. Students need to be prepared to enter the workforce or create their own businesses. In this modern world, what you can do with the knowledge you have and what you’re able to create is more important than what you have memorized. There is nothing included in a knowledge-based curriculum that you can’t just Google.

Why I believe in a skills-based curriculum.

A skills-based curriculum is based on what you can do or create, rather than what you know. Instead of memorizing major dates that occurred in the 100 Years War, students analyze the events of the war to determine who may have been at fault or how it could have been avoided.

Instead of reciting facts about Charlemagne’s life, students can compare him to other leaders today or view his life from different perspectives and determine if they think he’s a hero or a villain. Rather than testing on the contents of a novel, students can write a book review with their ideas and connect it with real-world events.

The challenges of a skills-based curriculum.

Of course, there are drawbacks–mainly, that it’s hard. It’s challenging to plan a curriculum and difficult to plan activities that focus on skills rather than knowledge.

It’s also trickier to evaluate the performance of projects because of the relative subjectivity of grading when compared to knowledge-based tests and quizzes. Coming up with systems to evaluate students equitably and fair takes a lot of work and brainpower.

It is more nebulous when it comes to communicating success or failure. Furthermore, there is lesser satisfaction when communicating progress (for example, being able to say that a student got 6/10 correct versus 10/10).

However, the benefits of a skills-based curriculum are endless.
As a result of a skills-based curriculum, the students can learn a lot more. When students begin taking a skills-based curriculum course that focuses on what they can do, the knowledge follows.

You end up with students who CAN create things, write stories, express opinions, analyze events, create documents, spearhead projects, conduct experiments, form opinions, express themselves, and communicate results. The things they create are tangible, and that’s the new measure of success.

Success is no longer measured by test scores, but instead, by what you have achieved. The student has a tangible outcome of their work; not a test score, but eight paragraphs that were produced independently.

It’s no longer about what you can memorize and regurgitate back. It’s what a student can achieve, create, and do! 

Developing and growing brains becomes the priority, instead of using brains as storage. As a result, knowledge comes naturally.

My approach to creating an equitable rubric for a skills-based curriculum

The first thing you need to know about my approach to grading equitably is that I don’t grade. In my school, I take grading out and give very clear learning goals and actionable qualitative feedback.

As an example, I would give a goal of writing a persuasive essay with three ideas that prove the students’ initial point.

I would then evaluate using the following system:

  • Did the student include three ideas in this essay?
  • Is the initial point strong?
  • Was the initial point proven in the essay?

I provide qualitative feedback on what was done well, what was missing, and how to improve for the next time.

However, not all teachers are in a position to just get rid of grading, in which case, I recommend rubrics. The learning goals go into the rubric. These learning goals need to be very specific.

As an example:

  • The student had a strong point about this book they want to prove. Yes, no, or maybe. Yes is 2/2 points.
  • I have three ideas to back up my initial point. Yes, no, or maybe. Yes is 3/3 points.
  • The initial point was proven in the essay. Yes, no, or maybe. Yes is 5/5 points

A skills-based rubric will base point systems on the goals and skills they were supposed to apply. There is also freedom when it comes to how each goal is weighed. Items of importance can be given more priority on the rubric. Spelling can be worth one point while reorganizing ideas in a way that makes sense can be worth five points.

When you apply the exact same rubric to everyone, then it almost becomes objective. Instead of grading based on a feeling, it is based on clear goals and objectives.  

The winner: Skills-based curriculum

The outcomes of a skills-based curriculum are amazing. Students learn appliable skills such as independence, self-reliance self-awareness, self-advocacy, and critical thinking.   

  1. Increased independence
    1. You end up with independent students who can do things for themselves. They are not saying I don’t know how to spell that; they get a dictionary. They are not saying I don’t know the answer to that question. They Google it.
  2. Higher confidence
    1. Students are not thinking of themselves as empty vessels or storage containers that receive information, but as people who can do something and solve a problem without waiting for someone else to do it for them (and being disappointed when that person doesn’t come through). 
  3. Application of valuable skills
    1. Research skills are essential in today’s world. These students are able to do something with knowledge rather than spitting it back out.
  4. Clear communication
    1. They write to communicate and do so effectively. A skills-based learning curriculum prepares students to articulate their thoughts clearly, precisely, and thoughtfully. Clear communication serves us in every area of life.

If you would like to know more about my process or how a skills-based curriculum could help your child or student, please reach out to me at

One Comment on “Using a Skills Based Curriculum instead of Knowledge Based

  1. Pingback: Learning Skills Are More Valuable than Knowledge and Content

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