Oh, will we ever learn? The field of education, perhaps more than any other field that I can easily think of right now except perhaps politics, suffers from groups of professionals arguing both sides of a non-existent debate. I have written about the perils of false dichotomies in education elsewhere (here), but unfortunately they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. The latest debate, which as I said isn’t really a debate at all, is about content vs. skills. Should our curriculum be content- or skills-driven? Which should take precedence: content or skills? If we need to cut something from our curriculum, should it be content or skills? When I hear these kinds of questions, my head wants to explode. It seems quite obvious to me that we need both, that our curriculum should be rich both in content and skills. So why, if it’s easy for me and many others to see this, does the debate exist at all? I have a few thoughts.
First, at least some on the skills side of the debate appear to have a narrow definition or understanding of “skills.” For some, skills seem to be only things that are hands-on or experiential in nature. So, for instance, being able to make a 3-dimensional object is easily labeled as a skill. But what about writing an argumentative essay? Is that a skill? What about thinking through a problem logically? Is that a skill? I thought these things were skills, but I started to question myself so I actually looked up the definition of the word skill. Here it is: Skill (n.) 1. Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience. 2. a. An art, trade, or technique, particularly one requiring use of the hands or body. b. A developed talent or ability: writing skills. So while definition 2a points to the use of hands or body in determining whether something is a skill, this is only one of 3 possible definitions, and the most narrow one at that. Skills, broadly defined, involve anything in which one develops proficiency or ability. Thus, cognitive skills are truly skills.
Many people also fail to realize “content is king,” at least when it comes to reading comprehension, and reading comprehension, of course, influences every aspect of education. Studies have shown that, when students have more background knowledge on a particular subject, they can better comprehend and analyze a written passage or verbal message about that subject. How do they acquire that background knowledge? Hopefully through a curriculum rich with content.
Once when some of my history students were having a particularly rough day and not in the best of moods, I asked them why they thought we were studying European history. (Shout out to the class of 2011!) I held up a history book, and I asked, “Do you think you will remember every fact, every event, every person that we’ve learned about this year?” Of course, they answered in the negative, and I agreed with them. I went on to explain that we were using the content of history to learn skills that they would take with them into other areas of their lives that had nothing to do with European history. While I hoped they would remember a lot of the history or at least have an appreciation for the past, what I really cared about was that they left my class able to think. I went on to list the skills that I knew they were developing in my course: critical analysis, argumentative writing, an ability to see patterns and connections, effective communication, an ability to feel empathy or see differing perspectives, reading comprehension, etc. These are cognitive skills, thinking skills, but they are skills that students in the 21st century need. But in order to teach these things, one has to hang her hat on something, and for me, that something is history. The content gives me the framework to teach the skills to the students, and it provides the framework for them to learn the skills. Maybe because the two things – content and skills – are so inextricably intertwined it’s difficult for people to see this. I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. It’s not an either/or. It’s not content or skills. When you find yourself in the middle of such an argument, take a deep breath, try not to let your head explode, and enjoy from the sidelines yet another non-existent debate.