Thinking back on my school experience as a student, I recall very little about the content covered. I could probably only tell you a few specific facts about each class I took in high school. I know America fought in several wars, but I couldn’t tell you the specific dates. Does that mean I didn’t learn anything in school? Were my teachers ineffective? No, because they taught me vital skills needed to succeed in life. I know how to find answers to questions; I know what to do when I am struggling; and I know how to extract the main idea from a text. I learned crucial skills that have helped me be successful in life. I know how to study for exams and solve problems. As a student, knowing how to do school and be a student is so much more important than learning the specific details of a historical time period or the symbolism of a character in a novel.
As a teacher, I make sure to focus on helping my students acquire key skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society. After having a conversation with a colleague this morning regarding content versus skills, I realized how easy it is for teachers to get caught up in teaching content to their students. “My students must memorize dates and names for battles and historical events,” some teachers might say. This belief is much like fake news; if you believe it to be true, you begin to spread ignorance and falsities. In the technological world in which we live where answers and information can be found by clicking a button, content knowledge is no longer what should be driving our curriculum. Students don’t need to memorize the elements of the periodic table or mathematical formulas as they can quickly look them up online. Instead, students need to know how to navigate the Internet, how to complete an effective online search, how to take notes and extract the main idea from a text, how to draw conclusions and make inferences from novels, and how to think critically to solve problems. Of course, those are only some of the ever important skills our students need to acquire. We need to teach our students how to be lifelong learners, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers. Knowing a bunch of information will get you nowhere in life if you don’t know how to analyze literature or tackle a difficult math problem. Teaching is about imparting vital life skills to our students by using the content information as a vehicle. While my students think they are learning all about the Middle East region, they are really learning how to think critically about the world around them in order to broaden their perspective and be open to multiple stories and ideas.
Today in STEM class, my students worked on the final project for our unit on climate change. The students generated unique solutions to the issue of climate change. How can we reduce carbon emissions? The boys, working in pairs, brainstormed creative products and ideas for addressing the issue of climate change and are now in the process of building a working prototype of their idea. One group spent the period cutting and screwing together pieces of wood to build a box that will trap and store heat energy so that it can be recycled and reused by factories, while another group used various parts of a wind turbine kit to construct a working wind turbine that they will innovate for their solution. Other groups spent the period working with Little Bits to create a solar battery that could be attached to glasses and planting wheat grass in an our aquaponics system that they will use as part of their solution. The boys were applying numerous skills we’ve introduced and had them practice throughout the year in sixth grade including problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance, asking questions, appropriately using tools, and collaboration. The students were focused for the entire work period, which lasted about 45 minutes. It was awesome.
Where’s the content, you ask. Well, the big ideas came earlier in the unit when the students learned about climate change, its causes, and its affect on Earth. However, each group is learning tons of specific facts and knowledge nuggets regarding their solution. One group has had to research all about how wind turbines work and how to construct their own while other groups are learning how electricity works so that they can wire their invention to store solar power, how to create a scaled-drawing, how to manipulate clay and cook it, and how to plant wheat grass. This content is important to them because they need to learn it in order to create their invention. I’m not telling my students they need to learn all about wiring and electricity or how to power a wind turbine, they want to learn that information so that they can create a working prototype of their solution. The engagement with the content they are learning through completing this project is much higher than if I lectured at them and had them take notes. They don’t always see the relevance in class discussions or knowledge I pass along to them during mini-lessons, but when they want to make a pair of solar powered glasses, they go out of their way to learn how that whole process works. The learning becomes genuine and real. So, there was plenty of content being learned in my classroom today, but that was only a by-product of the project. This project, like every STEM project completed in the sixth grade, is all about the skills. The students are learning how to work with their peers, solve problems, think creatively and critically about the world around them, and persevere through failure. This is what classrooms around the world should look like. They should be student-centered, where the focus is on learning and applying skills they will need to be successful in their lives outside of school. Information and content can be fun, but if students don’t know what to do with it, that content becomes a roadblock to success and forward progress.