As someone who usually subscribes to the all-things-in-moderation philosophy, I think there needs to be a healthy balance between the whats and hows of education. But anymore, it seems like all I hear about is the latter.
Let me be clear. By whats, I mean the content being taught; the texts, the essential concepts, and so forth. As for the hows, I’m talking about the actual teaching practices happening in the classroom. Will students be working in groups to complete a project or activity, or exploring the material on their own? How should the teacher introduce new concepts, and how do students demonstrate that they actually understand what’s being taught?
Lately, the hows have been all the rage. I worry that we’re forgetting about the whats.
That’s because teachers are being told that more content doesn’t equal more learning. In a world where students can just Google it, some workforce and education experts argue that schools should move away from content-based curriculum and instead focus on building “21st Century skills” like problem-solving and critical thinking. Education is no longer about what students know, they claim — it’s about what they do with what they know. (Or something like that.)
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of value in promoting skills like critical thinking and collaboration, but not at the expense of knowledge.
Content Is Still King
In 21st Century schools, the argument goes, we need students who can “think like scientists” and “think like historians. But before students can develop those critical thinking skills, they have to actually know some things about science and history first.
In my view, part of the issue at hand comes from the standards, which are basically just the state-approved goals for students’ learning. Most states use the Common Core standards, and as any teacher could tell you, nearly all of them are skills-based. Take for example the standards on the right, which depict the intended outcomes middle school social studies: Students should be able to perform basic “historian” skills like citing textual evidence and determining the main ideas of historical sources.
Now, I like those standards a lot, and I think the skills they espouse are valuable in a 21st Century society filled with “fake news” and unreliable sources. But those skills don’t occur in a vacuum. We can certainly teach students important analytical skills like determining main ideas and making inferences from texts while still exposing them to rich content knowledge.
If the standards tell us where kids should end up, then curriculum tells us how they should get there. And that vehicle has to be strong, content-based teaching.
In fact, that’s exactly what the Common Core was intended to achieve, though that gem of truth has gotten lost in the heated rhetoric of political debates and “opt-out” campaigns. Just take a gander at this truth bomb, straight from the Common Core standards themselves:
By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.
Simply put, content is still king. Even in the 21st Century, knowledge still matters.
It matters because a lot of low-income and minority children lack access to age-appropriate books, meaning they’re already behind their peers in content exposure by the time they enter school.
It matters because most standardized reading tests measure background knowledge more than reading skills.
It matters because if we want our students to think critically, it’s on us to give them engaging, high-quality materials to think critically about.
You can have knowledge without skill, but you can’t have skill without knowledge. And if anyone still believes that we can achieve those “21st Century competencies” without a healthy balance of both, they deserve a big lump of coal in their stockings next week.