When stuck in a hole the best advice is to stop digging, but what if you can't spot the hole in the first place? The NCEA review's promotion of project-based learning is an example of the sort of frantic digging that occurs when profoundly and blindly stuck.

What's wrong with projects? As the Hobsonville School students argued so passionately in the Herald recently, learning by doing projects is motivating and encourages learning. This "knowledge-how" approach also fits nicely with New Zealand's skills-based national curriculum. But what does the approach actually mean and what is the source of this learning?

These are the questions the NCEA review needs to ask. We curriculum designers call the source of learning "knowledge-that". It's made up of propositions, concepts, and content, referred to broadly as academic subjects. Knowledge-that is very different from the knowledge-how we practise in activities and projects.

The difference between the two forms of knowledge matters because the problem for our education system is to do with their order. The fatal flaw in the national curriculum and NCEA is that the knowledge order is wrong.

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At present we put the skills of knowledge-how first. But we need to start with academic knowledge (knowledge-that), then have the well-designed and exciting activities and projects which allow students to show their understanding.

Assessment comes in at the final stage. Crucially, it should measure the understanding of the knowledge as demonstrated in its skilful application. At present the assessment tends to measure the skills themselves. It's easier that way.

Let's look at some examples — the alphabet (for young children), trigonometry (for older students), electrical circuits (for university engineering students). The same design principles apply to all ages.

If we use a knowledge-how approach to start, we would ask students to sound out the letters of the alphabet, measure the viewshafts from Auckland's volcanoes, calculate the current in the resistor in the circuit. It certainly sounds a sensible approach. After all, we do want young people to use the knowledge they acquire at school.

What's missing from these examples is what we need to know first so that using the skills is actually showing what we understand as well as what we can do.

When children sound out alphabet letters how do we know they associate the squiggles on the page with alphabetical names or are they just parroting the adult?

What trigonometry do you need before you can measure the viewshafts from Auckland's volcanoes or do you simply follow a list of instructions?

We may be able to calculate the current in the resistor in the electrical circuit by following the rules. But if we want to be able to do this in other projects, to generalise in other words, we need to know that current is a response to the application of electric potential to a closed circuit.

Following instructions and applying skills won't tell us that. We have to be taught it.

This is the crucial difference between the two forms of knowledge. Academic knowledge (knowledge-that) enables us to understand the meaning of what we do. It is challenging but also deeply fulfilling when we finally "get it". Because it can't be picked up from experience, it needs to be taught by an expert; a teacher in other words.

It's the old saying, academic knowledge is "taught not caught". The problem is academic knowledge is not as visible as knowledge-how so we tend to think the skills we see in action are the same as understanding what is meant.

A serious limitation of knowledge-how is that it doesn't provide the knowledge needed to generalise. When we think of professionals such as engineers, medical professionals, and teachers whose knowledge has consequences for the lives of others, whether the skills we see on the surface are informed by deep knowledge really does matter.

Starting with knowledge-how, with the project hands-on approach, leads to the very rote learning its supporters are, rightly, so opposed to. But there are deeper problems caused by starting with knowledge-how.

Without being taught the academic ideas behind the "doing" we cannot generalise to other projects or other situations. We are stuck in the one instance, in the here and now. We can follow instructions. We can apply skills, often quite advanced skills, but we can't understand, let alone explain and justify, why we do what we do.

It should concern us all that while New Zealand students are stuck in the knowledge-how world of experience, the NCEA review is there too.

• Professor Elizabeth Rata is director of the Knowledge in Education research unit in the faculty of education and social work at the University of Auckland.