We have all heard the two sides of the coin: students need to learn content vs. skills.
Countless connected educators make the point that skills are more important than content knowledge. No one in a business cares whether or not you can recite Shakespeare or that you know the names of the wives of Henry VIII. Moreover, memorizing a bunch of names, dates, and facts will not serve you well as you are negotiating a business deal. However, the skills required by the Common Core State Standards, such as formulating an argument or presenting information through a digital platform, will be part of just about any job in the 21st century. Therefore, this seems like a slam dunk.
I do have some concerns with this argument.
First of all, this argument pits skills against a straw man. It presents skills against the mere memorization of content. Nobody but a fool would argue that memorizing the 44 presidents (actually 43 because Grover Cleveland was a repeat) is an important life skill. (Although it has entertained me during some dull professional development sessions.) Memorization is even less important in literature: who needs to memorize every character of Shakespeare’s plays or Austen’s novels?
But content does not need to be about memorization. In fact, content should not be about memorization. History and literature should require students to apply critical and higher-order thinking skills. These should take precedence over any kind of memorization (which is actually just a fancy word for short-term memory).
In my personal opinion, content is the perfect place to apply skills. Yes, students can apply skills to current events or popular culture, and good teachers should make comparisons and analogies between content and what is now relevant. In reality, however, what is popular or “current” today is forgotten tomorrow. The long-standing content that we have built up over hundreds or thousands of years maintains a certain relevance because it has stood the test of time. Can anyone recite–from memory–the Pulitzer Prize winners for literature from the past 25 years? Most people can’t. But most educated people can recognize that authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens wrote some lasting literature that will be long remembered after we pass from this earth. As students learn valuable skills that are applied to these works will continue to be relevant after bands like One Direction and Five Sounds of Summer fall from favor.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that content knowledge and critical thinking skills need not be enemies. In a perfect world, they would be one and the same.