Teaching Opinion

Knowledge vs. Skills: What Should Teachers Target?

By David Ginsburg — January 31, 2016 3 min read
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“I just want to teach.”

I hear these words from many exasperated new teachers (plenty of veterans too). And what most of them mean--just as I did, when I expressed this sentiment as a newbie--is that they want to be able to teach reading, math, social studies, etc. without so many interruptions.

Inherent in this thinking is the belief that we teach content rather than kids. And that teaching is more about imparting knowledge than cultivating skills. The desire, for example, to teach without interruptions ignores the fact that some interruptions don’t prevent us from teaching but rather present opportunities for teaching, as Heather Bleakley Chang spoke to in her recent post on this blog, Three Problems With Traffic Light Behavior Charts:

When a child’s behavior commands our attention, we need to ask ourselves, “What do I want this student to learn from my response to his/her action?”

The case for targeting knowledge over skills has never been weaker than now, when students can access almost any information with a few clicks (or a few words for those who have access to Siri or another virtual assistant). It’s not so easy, though, when it comes to persistence or dependability, which is why I think of these and other soft skills as hard skills. And why I see it as part of our job as educators to help students develop these skills.

This doesn’t mean we need stand-alone character education programs. Nor does it mean we need to compromise the curriculum. What it does mean is that we must identify the skills students need to be successful in and out of the classroom. Skills like resourcefulness, teamwork, and others comprising my Success Comes From the HEART formula. We then need to choose academic tasks and use instructional strategies that cultivate those behaviors.

I put the emphasis on “cultivate” because we don’t need to explicitly teach skills like persistence. We need to create opportunities for students to develop them, with coaching from us, as necessary. To help students become more resourceful, for example, refrain from indulging their premature requests for help. Provide students access to resources, and hold them accountable for using those resources--and again, when necessary, coach them on how to use those resources.

To help students develop conflict resolution skills, engage them in critical discourse and debate. (Debate is also great for developing other skills such as synthesizing information, critical thinking, speaking, listening, and assertiveness.)

To help students become effective researchers, stop feeding them information or telling them where to find it. Let them go after it using a variety of sources, and then ask them to compare, contrast, and critique what they found and where they found it.

And getting back to those infuriating interruptions that prompt us to say, “I just want to teach,” let’s face it: there wouldn’t be so many interruptions if students weren’t so bored. This too is a reason for placing greater emphasis on skills when planning lessons. Not just soft skills, but also cognitive skills. I’m reminded of my geometry classes, where most students were comatose or out of control until I focused on essential skills required to learn geometry rather than just focus on content. One such skill was reasoning, which traditional assignments weren’t helping my students develop. (It’s hard to benefit from an assignment if you don’t do it or only go through the motions.) But when I targeted reasoning skills through logic puzzles and other brain teasers, students were highly engaged AND learned geometry with greater gusto and proficiency.

Am I suggesting we no longer concern ourselves with content? Of course not. But I am saying we don’t need to deliver that content so much as we need to let students delve into it.

I’m also saying we should select and plan classroom activities based on what students should be able to do rather than just what they should know.

Image by Mikhaluk, provided by Dreamstime license

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.