School & District Management Opinion

Content or Skills? It’s the Chicken or the Egg Conversation in Education

By Starr Sackstein — March 29, 2019 4 min read
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Recently on #edchat, we were discussing the following topic: “Is content still king, or has it been displaced by the skills we have recognized for surviving and thriving in a modern world?” And I found myself going in circles as I commented and/or responded to other people’s ideas.

At first, I considered elementary learning, which undoubtedly seems to be skills first, content second, as they need the skills in elementary to access the content. Whether reading a text, image, and/or movie or song, younger learners need to be taught how before what.

Then considering my career as a secondary English teacher, mostly in 11th and 12th grades, I found myself considering the same thing. Students in my classes needed to master skills as they concurrently learned to analyze different texts and connect their learning across content areas, particularly with the historical time periods the texts were written in or about.

Of course, secondary content areas like math, science, and social studies are heavily dependent upon content, but I’m still caught on where the balance is.

In a society today, where we are so technology-dependent and facts are accessible on almost any device, it doesn’t seem pertinent to memorize all or any advanced information. The more important skill seems to be to teach students how to find, access and vet the information that they can research on their own, which is a different skill set from even 10 years ago.

Too often in schools, we assume that kids know how to access the content, when in fact they don’t. Most kids who think they can “Google” effectively don’t really understand how search engines work, and that is a skill we can teach them.

Another issue that arose is that the internet is a breeding ground for all kinds of writers and publishers. Who those people are isn’t always obvious at a first glance. We need to teach students to be savvy about where they get their information and from whom. What makes a source credible? Just because something is online doesn’t mean that it is accurate or legitimate.

Understanding professional expertise and what makes someone’s content viable is another skill set altogether.

Once upon a time, we needed to teach from a textbook to access important information that made us more well-rounded learners. I believe that a certain level of content knowledge is important in all content areas, at least a working knowledge of science and major moments in history. But there are many more nuances now that we have to consider that many textbooks certainly don’t.

Since we want students to have a culturally sensitive understanding of history, it is important that we expose students to many different perspectives in history and then teach them to synthesize what they learn to have a deeper understanding of the subject.

Another topic that emerged in the chat that seemed salient was the discussion of testing and what role that plays in how and what we teach. Many chatters suggested that the tests were content-driven, while others suggested the opposite. In the earlier ages, for sure, the tests seem to be more about reading and skills and less about content. Perhaps even into high school, many of the exams expect students to be strong readers and writers, even more than the content, sometimes even in content-heavy classes like social studies.

In New York, for example, the new social studies regents exam in global history relies a lot on a student’s ability to understand bias and reliability of sources that they need to analyze. Students also have to understand the idea of an enduring issue and how it manifests over time, both using different documents provided and background information that they bring to the test. Students need to be able to access information, but they also need to be able to utilize skills deftly to succeed.

Testing is a big issue in education right now. Personally, I’m not a fan of it in any capacity. Since most of these state or national exams aren’t made by educators and create issues of equity on a larger scale, they don’t often show what kids know and can do and hardly norm the group as they are supposed to (but that’s an issue for another post). Therefore, it is sad that so many of these tests often dictate what and how we teach, which is to the detriment of our students.

Learning is an extremely complex experience, and it develops differently for all of us. Assessment of that learning needs to be more nuanced and differentiated to better illuminate that which students know and what they still need to work on. Schools shouldn’t be penalized, and teacher’s evaluations shouldn’t be tied to it.

The real test of learning should come with synthesis and natural connections to the world and the ability to participate in our society in a meaningful way.

So after going in circles, I do think there is a relationship between content and skills that can’t be separated. In order to practice skills, we need content to focus on, and I’m not sure that one is more important than the other. It really depends on the context.

Where do you weigh in on this topic? Content or Skills? Please share

Photo made using Pablo.com

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