A balance between teaching skills and content


Photo by takaken2008 on Flickr

What are 21st century skills and are these skills different to those currently being taught in schools?  How radically do we need to change our teaching practices?

Daniel Willingham has written an informative post in Britannica blog entitled Education for the 21st century: balancing content with skills, in which he asks and answers the important question: why the sudden concern for 21st century skills.

Willingham quotes reports and books  that point to:

changes in the skills required for most jobs. Our economy is generating fewer jobs in which workers engage in repetitive tasks throughout their day (e.g., assembly line work) and more information-rich jobs that present workers with novel problems and that require analysis and teamwork.

 Willingham quotes Elena Silva in defining these skills as having at their core the ability to

analyze and evaluate information, create new ideas and new knowledge from the information.

He also adds to creativity and critical thinking the following essential skills for the 21st century from a report from the partnership for 21st century skills :

new knowledge … [and] global awareness, media literacy, information literacy, and other new content.

Now, this is where I start sitting up and taking note. Although I’m fully on board with the need for 21st century skills, I haven’t felt comfortable substituting content for skills alone. Memorisation of facts without the skills is obviously a waste of time, and I understand that you need the skills to locate, manage and synthesize the freely available information to create knowledge, but we still need a knowledge of some content, surely, otherwise the skills are free floating and without context. 

Willingham ties up the skills/content dilemma very well for me. He says that the 21st century skills require deep understanding of subject matter:

Shallow understanding requires knowing some facts. Deep understanding requires knowing the facts AND knowing how they fit together, seeing the whole.

And skills like “analysis” and “critical thinking” are tied to content; you analyze history differently than you analyze literature … If you don’t think that most of our students are gaining very deep knowledge of core subjects—and you shouldn’t—then there is not much point in calling for more emphasis on analysis and critical thinking unless you take the content problem seriously. You can’t have one without the other.

As usual, a balance is required to make things work effectively, and this should surely be common sense. This way we avoid the too often pendulum swings that have occurred in the history of education

between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on.

For me, this balance is the key to identifying the problems and solutions of 21st century learning. I’m trying to understand the shift in education more deeply to avoid a superficial conversion. I think that, for me at least, more discussion will enable a deeper understanding of the learning processes and the corresponding teaching processes that are essential to prepare students for work and life in these times.

As usual, I welcome and am grateful for any comments, and look forward to generating some discussion.


Filed under 21st century learning, creativity, debate, Education, learning, teachers, teaching, Web 2.0

4 responses to “A balance between teaching skills and content

  1. Hi Tania,
    if the aim is to produce critical or creative thinkers then, apart from getting the balance between content and skills right, the third crucial element is relevance – kids in our schools are happy to be engaged in learning, and to learn the content and develop skills, if they see relevance in what they are asked to do.

    Thus, the push in recent times concerning so-called ‘authentic learning’ – learning based on trying to come up with solutions to so-called ‘real-world’ problems.

    There is a similar nod to the centrality of relevance underpinning the ‘driving questions’ approach to teaching and learning.

    This approach is predicated on the belief that the very best questions are those that lead to more questions: questions that excite and motivate students to find out more (deep understanding of content) whilst at the same time challenging learners to consider where they might find appropriate information, what critical questions they should be applying to information found (e.g. “Who is saying this?” “What vested interests might they have that could compromise their objectivity?” “How might the accuracy of what they are saying be checked?” “What issues aren’t they addressing that might be germane?” etc), to share ideas about what areas or issues they might need to find out more about in order to be able to formulate informed opinions or proffer credible solutions, to consider how what they are learning in one knowledge domain might further inform and illuminate what they already know in other knowledge domains, and so on. All of this, and more, comes under the heading of developing skills. Many of these skills are transferable across disciplines, have significant and enduring utility, and are basic precursors for developing more effective learners.

    The more I work with students using such approaches, the more I come to realise that, if the point of the exercise is to produce thinkers who have the self-belief, the interest, and the knowledge and skills to be life-long learners, who know how to be masters of their own future education in a changing world, then, though skills can’t develop in a content vacuum (so some content is required), the actual choice of content is often of secondary consequence .

    Often, a ‘big question’ or ‘driving question’ will enable an astute teacher/mentor to utilise disparate student interests and thus varied content/contexts to get things rolling. If the students are motivated, by whatever means, to come to grips with the driving question (and then the subsequent questions that the driving question raises), this can be the spark for them to develop some enduring, transferable/generic skills (particularly those skills central to learning how to learn) and become more effective learners.

  2. Thankyou, Kevin, for your insightful and thorough answer to my question. I agree with what you say, and particularly that a big or driving question can spark student motivation. It’s at this point that choice which is properly scaffolded can result in creativity which propels the student into an authentic learning experience.

  3. Finally, I get back here! The content vs skills debate is one we have been having here, too. This is especially true for our Advanced Placement teachers who must administer the AP test at the end of the year. To what extent should content drive those courses? Our AP Government teacher spent most of the fall enabling the students to feel personally invested in the political process. She did this by having the students do interviews, share blogs, make videos, listen to speakers. I would argue the students learned content and truly “own” the political process now. They’ve made it theirs. I don’t think it would have happened if they had simply been given “content” to learn and write about. What were the skills? Learning to listen to a speech and determine what was biased, slanted, or the truth. Gathering data to present in videos intended to persuade the audience. Writing on blogs, responding to comments, and sharing their thoughts. We do know that some content is necessary. Otherwise, how do students put ideas into context? But the dilemma for us is to balance the content with real-life skills that will make the learning meaningful and will help prepare students to lead a rich life.

  4. Susan, thanks for your comment; it’s good to have your perspective on this issue. Although I’m not sure what AP is, but I can see that there is pressure to pass an exam, and that often means that teachers feel pressured to drop any alternative means of teaching and concentrate on cramming the content. What you say is encouraging to me, since you make it clear that, even in this situation, students benefit from an active, rather than passive, approach to their learning. As you say, ownership plays a big part in learning, and, from your examples, so does creativity. I appreciate that teachers are always in the challenging position of balancing content and skills, but the bottom line is, skills don’t have to get thrown out when the learning becomes ‘serious’.

    An example from my personal life:
    My 18 son just completed year 12, and in Victoria, Australia, students normally do VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education), although a small minority elect to do IB (International Baccalaureate). I know that in other countries IB is more popular, but here it’s relatively unknown. When making a decision at the end of year 10, one of my main fears was that this challenging course would mean that my son’s ENTER score (which determines entry to tertiary level) would be compromised. Maybe it was easier or at least more predictable to stick with VCE. I’m not putting VCE down, but quite a few subjects are at a higher standard in IB (eg. English, which is literature, and psychology), and there is an extra subject, Theory of Knowledge, as well as an extended essay, which, as far as I’m concerned, is like a mini thesis in its requirements for research and referencing.

    Now that he has finished, I realise that he has developed wonderful, transferable skills that will be invaluable at university, for example, higher order thinking, flexibility in approaching a problem, self management, sound research skills, confidence and many more. Whatever result he gets, he is well prepared for university and life.

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