Domain-Specific Knowledge: 1, Domain-Independent Skills: 0

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

In both the workplace and education, there’s a lot of talk about so-called ‘domain-independent skills’, also called ‘generic’ or ‘transferable’ skills. In general, the perceived need for those skills is based on the premise that we currently live in a knowledge-based new economy, and the associated pressures for lifelong learning as well as the maintenance of employability that come with that require something different than ‘simple knowledge’.  More specifically, in the context of the workplace, the idea is that organisations change so fast and are so complex that it’s no longer feasible to know what kind of domain-specific knowledge and skills people need (they’ll be outdated as soon as you’ve learned them, is the idea) and therefore, it’s better to focus on more generic skills so that people are more flexible and can more easily adapt to change. BruceElkin.com put it forward as follows:

Generic skills are high-order, transferable skills that are common to almost all complex endeavours. They include skills such as communicating, problem-solving, curiosity, patience, flexibility, purpose, persistence, resilience, courage, and creating — that apply across all specific fields. They enable us to organize, adapt, and strategically apply our specific skills in new situations and circumstances.”

We’ll get back to this later.

One example from an educational context, is the Armenian ministry of education claiming that each child should learn chess because it helps them to learn how to think creatively and strategically. Consequently, they’ll be better problem-solvers and become more intelligent. That’s the idea. We’ve discussed this example and explained why that idea is rubbish in a previous blog.

In another blog, we’ve explained why 21st century skills don’t exist and we now take the opportunity to (strongly!) argue that domain-independent skills don’t exist either (and, in fairness, many of the so-called 21st century skills overlap with generic skills). We’ll repeat it until we’re heard: Generic, domain-independent skills DON’T exist, period!

They.don’t.exist.

We’ll begin by briefly looking at what domain-independent skills are supposed to be. Then we’ll explore how we build generic knowledge first and domain-specific knowledge next. Finally, we’ll discuss the consequences of domain-independent skills on our problem-solving and other capabilities, which will leave us with only one conclusion: If you want to be ready for the future, forget about domain-independent skills and focus on domain-specific knowledge!

What are domain-independent skills?

A skill (Merriam Webster) is the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. Interestingly, it’s not so easy to find a strong definition on domain-independent skills. For example, Murdoch-Eaton and Whittle (2001) describe them as a common set of transferable skills, regardless of a domain, which facilitate people’s ability to learn. They also state that terms like attributes and lifelong learning have been used interchangeably with the concept of ‘generic skills’ with implications beyond disciplinary knowledge.

There’s no consensus on which domain-independent skills are most important, but common examples are communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. In this blog, the focus is on the last one but what goes for problem-solving, goes for other generic skills as well (for example, try communicating or collaborating effectively and knowledgeably about a subject you know nothing about). Let’s explore how we acquire and use knowledge and then reconsider the concept of ‘generic skills’ as it will become clear that, without domain-specific knowledge, you’re nothing but a drifter.

No knowledge, no nothing

Before we dive into domain-specific knowledge, let’s define it first, following Tricot and Sweller (2014) who state that it’s “memorised information that can lead to action permitting specified task completion over indefinite periods of time” (p.  3).

Now, let’s start at the beginning, when we start learning, as children. At that point, we first build biologically primary knowledge through our ‘senses’. We watch and listen, we play, we engage in social relations, learn our mother tongue, learn how to recognise faces, learn to communicate using sounds and gestures, and learn how to use a problem-solving strategy such as a means-end analysis. This type of knowledge is acquired easily and unconsciously. It just ‘happens’. As humans, we’ve evolved this type of knowledge over many generations. In contrast, biologically secondary knowledge is knowledge that is heavily culturally dependent. Examples are reading, writing, and all other kinds of topics that are usually taught in schools, such as history and geography. Although the acquisition of biologically secondary knowledge is highly dependent on its primary partner, it doesn’t happen through simply interacting with the environment. This type of knowledge needs to be taught. It’s acquired consciously and it requires mental effort. What both knowledge types have in common, is that they’re stored in our long-term memory (LTM).

Sweller (2004) explains that the one unique aspect of human cognitive architecture is the size of our LTM. It’s only this quantitative aspect of our cognitive architecture that distinguishes us humans from other species when it comes to the extent to what we can learn and how we learn. The centrality of LTM to learning is non-negotiable. After all, if nothing has changed in LTM, nothing has been learned (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Period.

One thing that’s very characteristic for our LTM, is that the alterations it makes are slow. In other words, accumulating knowledge through learning doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process. One of the reasons why the learning process is so slow, is because of the limitations of our working memory (WM). As the image below shows, the input for WM can come from both sensory memory (SM) and LTM.

memory

What’s critical to understand, is that the capabilities of WM, when dealing with new information coming from SM is fundamentally different from its capability when dealing with knowledge that’s already stored in LTM. This difference makes a lot of sense! When WM is dealing with new (unknown to the individual) information from SM, there are no knowledge structures available to indicate how the new information should be organised. It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack (is there something in the LTM that this new piece of knowledge relates to somehow?) or perhaps you can compare it with a trial and error process. In contrast, when there’s relevant prior knowledge available in LTM, it functions like a central executive (Sweller, 2004). According to Baddeley and Hitch (1974) the central executive acts as a supervisory system, controlling the flow of information from and to its slave systems: the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad.

memory 2As Sweller states: “The acquired knowledge organises our sensory world and determines our actions. What we think of and even how we think is overwhelmingly determined by our knowledge held in LTM” (p.  17). When you have access to prior knowledge, you can simply ‘skip’ the limitations of WM. You can learn and solve problems more easily and effectively as a result.

Let’s reflect on what this means when we talk about generic skills. Let’s assume you’re dealing with a problem in a domain you know nothing about. In that case, you’d need to use your domain-independent, generic skills, right? If they’re ‘generic’ as claimed, you could use them to solve any problem in any area, for example by thinking of similar problems with known solutions (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). This generic knowledge would be stored in LTM, just like any other knowledge. If this is how it works, in theory people with no knowledge in a specific domain should be able to ‘beat’ the ones who DO have domain-specific knowledge. We’re lucky because there’s research on that exact topic, namely the research on what distinguishes experts (a lot of domain-specific knowledge) from novices (very little domain-specific knowledge).

Experts

Novices

Possess schemas for encoding elements into a single entity No access to relevant schemas
Skills acquisition without needing to recall the rule Attempt to remember & process individual elements
Automation important for complex problem-solving transfer Need to apply cognitive capacity to inefficient problem-solving
Strong problem solving approach[1] Weak problem solving approach[2]
(Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1979; Chi et al., 1982; De Groot, 1946, 1965; Kalyuga, Chandler & Sweller, 1998; Schneider & Shiffrin, 1997; Wilson & Cole, 1996).

Until A.D. De Groot (1946, 1965) published his work on chess grand masters, it was not so obvious that domain-specific knowledge and LTM’s role were as central as they are when it comes to problem-solving. De Groot’s research clearly shows that the only reason why chess grand masters outperform novice or average chess players is because “they recognise most of the board configurations that they encountered during a game and knew from previous experience which were the best moves for each configuration” (p.  11). In other words, their chess problem-solving skills are derived from a humongous amount of domain-specific (chess!) knowledge that chess masters hold in their LTM. It is that (and ONLY THAT!) knowledge that distinguishes them from newer and lower performing chess players. Many other studies have since confirmed that problem-solving ability is heavily dependent on domain-specific knowledge held in LTM, and not just for chess, also for other topics, such as designing software and symbolic circuit drawings.

In short, you won’t get far solving problems in an area you know nothing or very little about. In other words, no knowledge, no nothing! You’ll get nowhere.

Problem-solving as a generic skill: Imagine that

Some other examples …. Think solving a learning problem in a workplace context when you know nothing about how people learn (oh, wait, this happens every day! SCARY!). Think solving a quantum mechanical or constitutional law problem when you don’t know anything about quantum physics or constitutional law. Think solving a delicate confrontation in a war zone when you know nothing about peace-keeping, the culture, the history, the sensitivities, etc. And so the list goes on and on and… Why can’t you be effective? Because of how our memory works. This is what you’ll most likely do: You’ll try to ‘figure it out’.

head in sand

For example, you might spend a lot of time looking for information that you can’t judge well because you don’t fully understand what’s relevant and what isn’t. Or perhaps you’ll conduct a means-end analysis (known as a weak problem-solving approach; basically, reverting to something you did when you were still in your ‘biologically primary learning phase’):

means end

When you have a lack of domain-specific knowledge, what it comes down to is that you must combine elements randomly and then test them for effectiveness (Sweller, 2004). This is of course very inefficient and in some instances, like in the peace-keeping example, even terribly dangerous.

To sum it up: It’s impossible to solve problems without domain-specific knowledge, it’s impossible to communicate effectively on a topic if you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s impossible to collaborate effectively if you have no idea what you’re trying to accomplish with the others and what needs to happen to achieve the goal, and it’s even impossible to manage a project if you have no idea what the project entails (try managing a restaurant without any knowledge of food, hospitality, cooking…).

Tricot and Sweller (2014) write that psychological studies have researched cognitive performance for over 130 years now. They go on to say that “paradoxically, much of that research emphasised generic or domain-generic cognitive skills despite domain-specific knowledge held in long-term memory being arguably the most important factor, and possibly the only factor, determining acquired cognitive performance” (p.  3).

So just remember this: Domain-specific knowledge will bring you places. Domain-independent skills will turn you into a desert-wanderer, at best stumbling upon an oasis and worst getting nothing but lost.

 sand

References

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In  Psychology of learning and motivation  (Vol. 8, pp. 47-89). Academic press. Retrieved from https://app.nova.edu/toolbox/instructionalproducts/edd8124/fall11/1974-Baddeley-and-Hitch.pdf

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. I. (1986). Working memory. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Groot, A. D. de (1946). Het denken van den schaker. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij.

Groot, A. D. de (1965). Thought and choice in chess. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton

Murdoch‐Eaton, D., & Whittle, S. (2012). Generic skills in medical education: developing the tools for successful lifelong learning.  Medical education, 46(1), 120-128. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51860566_Generic_skills_in_medical_education_Developing_the_tools_for_successful_lifelong_learning

Sweller, J. (2004). Instructional design consequences of an analogy between evolution by natural selection and human cognitive architecture.  Instructional science32(1-2), 9-31. Retrieved from http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~bmann/0_ARTICLES/CogLoad_Sweller04.pdf

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work.  Educational psychology review26(2), 265-283. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258162628_Domain-Specific_Knowledge_and_Why_Teaching_Generic_Skills_Does_Not_Work

[1] A strong problem-solving method as a top-down, domain-specific, approach (expertise) which can be applied directly to the problem

[2] A weak problem-solving method is a general, non-specific approach where there is little domain expertise to apply directly to a problem. Here given a current state and a goal state, the learner searches for an action reducing the difference between the two. The action is performed on the current state to produce a new state, and the process is recursively applied to this new state and the goal state until the goal state has been reached.

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25 thoughts on “Domain-Specific Knowledge: 1, Domain-Independent Skills: 0

  1. Jan Elen says:

    I do totally agree but what I am continuously confronted with is the issue of ‘what is a domain’ ?
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom 🙂
    Jan

  2. Roger Brownlie says:

    Your examples of domain independent skills (communicating, problem-solving, curiosity, patience, flexibility, purpose, persistence, resilience) are not exactly domain independent. There are skills (i.e. useful tips and actions) to communicate, be persistent, solve problems etc. Having a specific domain would give context to these skills and make it easier to learn (e.g. by using stories and cases studies) but nonetheless many of these skills/tips/actions can be applied across domains.

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Where you say ‘skills/tips/actions’ that’s where I say that you’re referring to the rules and procedural knowledge. The examples that we have used re domain-independent skills (comms, problem-solving etc) are the ones that are usually argued to be domain-independent/generic/transferable in the literature. We didn’t make that up ;).

    • Paul Kirschner says:

      Roger, thanks, but… communicating, persistence, solving problems are heuristics/procedures (you even call them tips and actions!) which you can only implement if you have the necessary knowledge of the domain in which you are communicating (though I know many who talk at great lengths about things that they know little about), persisting, and/or solving problems in.

    • Paul Kirschner says:

      Thus, you can use it anywhere but it’s worthless if you don’t have the necessary domain-specific knowledge. Not much of a skill if you ask me. And please, don’t come with De Bono’s Thinking Hats, a myth/hype that has been debunked as often and is as worthless as MBTI.

      • Roger Brownlie says:

        Sorry but, I think it has worth on its own. As you acquire new domain-specific knowledge (through other means) it’s pretty handy to have some cross-domain techniques to help — for example, solve a problem in that new domain. I’ve used 6 thinking hats a few times, in different domains, with a team, to help make progress on a problem. It has always helped parse the problem and find new perspectives. It doesn’t magically solve it by itself, but it is a useful procedural aide.

  3. Roger Brownlie says:

    For what it’s worth, there are MANY completely worthless classes and “frameworks” claiming to support transferable skills! But I do think there are a few procedural techniques that operate across domains that have worth. Mathematics might be one. But that’s a whole other discussion… thanks again Paul and Mirjam!

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Roger, I think you’re confusing procedural knowledge and skills. As we explain in our blog, the procedural knowledge is transferable but that’s not the same thing as ‘a skill being transferable / generic’. We might need to go for a beer to ponder over it ;).

  4. Roger Brownlie says:

    Maybe I need a beer 🙂 Ah yes, i see you linked to that discussion about procedural knowledge in this post:
    https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/chess-in-schools-holy-grail-or-snake-oil/

    Makes sense – but I still think the the distinction between a skill and procedural knowledge is not so clear cut. When does a procedure become a skill? When it’s in a domain of it’s own like Maths? Like the first poster asked – what’s a domain? It took me a while to get there 🙂 Now where’s that beer?

  5. Michael says:

    Can somebody please clear up the difference between practical/procedural/functional knowledge and skills? Are these all synonyms for the same concept? If a curriculum lists a set of ‘skills’ to be developed, and they are planned alongside content, could this be considered defining knowledge, or should all curriculums be identifying the propositional knowledge to be memorized? I’m thinking of the IB PYP where they define a list of ‘transdisciplinary skills’. Thanks!

  6. Crispin Weston says:

    I think the current fashion for dismissing transferable skills has a number of serious flaws.

    1. Skill (“knowing how”) *is* knowledge. And “knowing how” is rarely about knowing what the procedure is (as the term “procedural knowledge” implies). In fact, it would be more useful to view all knowledge as a sort of “knowing how” and “knowing that” as the bogus form of knowledge. The only reason we ever know that anyone has any sort of propositional knowledge is because of their performance (e.g. in answering “when was the Battle of Hastings” with “1066”). It is common that people can retrieve such procedural knowledge in some circumstances and not others, so it is hard to say that they do or do not know fact x. Much better to say that they are capable of certain sorts of performance that depends on fact x.

    2. It is a non-sequitur to say (as you do) that because generic skill is of no use without domain knowledge, therefore there is no such thing. Yeast only works in the presence of heat and water – but that doesn’t mean that the yeast taken from my airing cupboard will not work in yours or that heat and water is all you need to make bread rise.

    3. Taken as a reductio ad absurdum, knowledge that isn’t transferable to some degree (in the sense of being applicable to a new and unfamiliar context) is barely knowledge at all, merely regurgitation. And once we have established the principle that *all* knowledge is transferable, all that remains (as Winston Churchill said to the duchess) is to haggle over the price (i.e. establish the extent &importance of transfer).

    4. If your argument is right, why do high-status employers typically look for graduates who have e.g. studied Classics (not e.g. business, law etc), on the grounds that such generic disciplines prepare general attitudes and capabilities. Have they been seduced by a unjustified theories, or are they not simply driven by their experience of who makes the best employee?

    5. There are a lot of capitals, explanation marks and other expressions of certainty in your post – but these are hardly supported by your final quote from Tricot & Sweller, which is highly caveated and circumspect: “domain-specific knowledge held in long-term memory being arguably the most important factor, and possibly the only factor, determining acquired cognitive performance”.

    6. As an earlier comment also said, what is a domain and where and how do you draw the lines between them?

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      1. Skill (“knowing how”) *is* knowledge…
      A skill is not the same as knowledge. It is the ability to perform with or based on knowledge. It is, for novices, based upon the combination of declarative and procedural knowledge.

      2. It is a non-sequitur to say (as you do) that because generic skill is of no use without domain knowledge, therefore there is no such thing. Yeast only works in the presence of heat and water – but that doesn’t mean that the yeast taken from my airing cupboard will not work in yours or that heat and water is all you need to make bread rise.
      Well, actually yeast only works in the presence of a liquid containing its own or added sugars, a complex carbohydrate that it can break down, and a temperature around 37 degrees Celsius. To be precise :). There are generic skills, but these are primarily based upon evolutionary acquired activities (have you read Geary and/or Sweller on this?). Unfortunately, for learning or effective task actions, they are rudimentary and need knowledge to effectively and efficiently solve problems or carry out tasks.

      3. Taken as a reductio ad absurdum, knowledge that isn’t transferable to some degree (in the sense of being applicable to a new and unfamiliar context) is barely knowledge at all, merely regurgitation. And once we have established the principle that *all* knowledge is transferable, all that remains (as Winston Churchill said to the duchess) is to haggle over the price (i.e. establish the extent &importance of transfer).
      I assume that Churchill studied that. But seriously, nobody said that knowledge is not transferable in either the blog or in and any of my or our writings. I think we need to be careful to not distract from the actual issue with suggesting that we’re saying such a thing.

      4. If your argument is right, why do high-status employers typically look for graduates who have e.g. studied Classics (not e.g. business, law etc), on the grounds that such generic disciplines prepare general attitudes and capabilities. Have they been seduced by a unjustified theories, or are they not simply driven by their experience of who makes the best employee?
      I’d say it’s a combination of being seduced and/or being ignorant. Why do teachers try to teach according to the learning pyramid or try to use learning styles is the same type of question? They’re seduced and they, unfortunately, don’t know better. I would like to see hard figures from those high status employers to show that hiring ‘Classics’ students is actually better for their business.

      5. There are a lot of capitals, explanation marks and other expressions of certainty in your post – but these are hardly supported by your final quote from Tricot & Sweller, which is highly caveated and circumspect: “domain-specific knowledge held in long-term memory being arguably the most important factor, and possibly the only factor, determining acquired cognitive performance”.

      I assume what you’re trying to say (where you are referring to exclamation marks and hence to style) you actually mean that you feel that our claims are too strong or perhaps more uncertain than we argue? That this topic might need more nuance? Some people have suggested additional literature to read so perhaps we’ll find out there are subtleties that we’ve overlooked.

      6. As an earlier comment also said, what is a domain and where and how do you draw the lines between them?

      A domain is specified sphere of activity or knowledge. And yes, project management is a domain of knowledge, but that’s different from the skill of managing a project.

  7. Roger Brownlie says:

    I think with some agreed linguistic rules this might all make sense. As is often the case with the education/learning space (avoiding the word domain) not all practitioners agree or even know about these various definitions.

  8. Christy Tucker says:

    I participated in a program called “Future Problem Solving” in 4th through 9th grades in school. The program taught a repeatable process for solving problems based on complex scenarios. (Brainstorm problems related to the scenario, decide on one underlying problem, brainstorm solutions, create criteria for evaluating solutions, evaluate the solutions with those criteria, and flesh out the best solution) That process was completed in 2 hours on event days, but that event followed weeks of researching to build knowledge in that topic. We knew the general topic in advance (ozone layer, advances in health care, terrorism, etc.) but didn’t know the specific scenario until the day of the event.

    If I’m understanding correctly, all the research was building the domain-specific knowledge. The process of solving problems is really a procedure rather than a skill by your definitions, right? That process was repeatable across many domains, but that’s because it’s a procedure contingent on prior research. Is that a correct application of what you’re saying here?

    I still feel like generic transferrable skills should be possible, but maybe that is just something I have to unlearn. I’m trying to wrap my head around this.

    Is knowing how to research in a library a transferrable skill? All those hours I spent looking up keywords in green bound books in the library so I could find journal articles (pre online catalogs) seem to have transferred pretty well to looking up keywords in Google. Maybe “problem solving” is really something where you can learn a procedure or principles that apply based on domain-specific knowledge, but other skills could be general skills? Where does research fit in your classification of skills vs. procedures vs. something else?

    • Paul Kirschner says:

      Christy – Simply stated, you have a heuristic – a general procedure with a set of steps – that you have learned to carry out. That’s great. But without domain-specific knowledge, you cannot carry out a search. You need to choose search terms, evaluate the hits as to their relevance and truth, etc. The same is true with carrying out research, solving a problem, writing an essay, and so further.

      • Roger Brownlie says:

        Again I think a linguistic taxonomy for this stuff would be useful. Does one exist? To me it seems perfectly reasonable that a procedure can also be a skill. But you don’t seem to allow this. Where might one find definitions for this so that we all speak the same language.

      • Christy Tucker says:

        Thanks for the reply, Paul. Like Roger, I’d love to see a taxonomy for this so I can use the terms more accurately in my own writing and discussions. Mirjam and I were part of a debate on LinkedIn a while back about the value of “courses,” but a big part of the problem was that we weren’t using the same definitions. The people who opposed courses defined them as passive content dumps, while Mirjam and I talked about things like practice and feedback as part of courses. That’s a big difference. I think part of why people might be “talking past each other” on this topic of domain-independent skills is that we’re just not using the same definitions.

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