Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, blog readers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, welcome to a match-up for the ages. (Imagine loud claps and screams of excitement coming from an imaginary audience.) In this corner, (which could really be any corner you choose as this is a blog and not an actual arena,) we have the ever sturdy and reliable, full of facts and information, Content. Can I get a woo hoo? (Picture screams of joy and boos coming from that same imaginary audience.) Who doesn’t love content? I mean, it’s the backbone of game shows like Jeopardy. Can learning really happen without subject area content? Is this even going to be a fair contest? (Hear shouts of YES and NO coming from the imaginary audience you’ve been picturing in your head.) But wait, because in the other corner, (which should just be the opposite of whatever corner you pictured Content in,) we have the trusty, always dependable, super useful and necessary, Skills. (You should be hearing screams of joy and boos coming from the imaginary audience of really cool and riled up people.) I mean, can you even learn content knowledge without the skills to do so first? The skills to work, take notes, and study make it so that you can learn the content. Shouldn’t Content just throw in the towel right now? (Screams of YES and NO come from the amazingly imaginary audience.) Well then, let’s get ready to RRRummmbllle!
Imagine a WWE style wrestling match between content and skills. How cool would that be? I would totally pay the exorbitant amount of money to see that pay-per-view match. It would be epic! In the end though, I do believe that skills would be crowned the victor. Sure, content knowledge is important. I mean, we can’t expect our students to fully digest what they are reading, listening to, or watching in the world around them if they don’t have a strong foundation of background, content knowledge. However, that sturdy foundation is useless if there are no skills built upon it. Students must learn how to assess the credibility of websites in order to locate and find trustworthy content knowledge online. Our students need to know how to attack a textbook and take effective notes on the main idea before they can glean any content from that book. Skills should be at the heart of what schools are teaching our students using the content as delivery receptacles. History class shouldn’t really be about learning history. It should be about the skills of analyzing information, differentiating between fact and fiction, comparing and contrasting events throughout history, understanding the culture and traditions of our diverse and unique world, and being able to view this beautiful crucible around us through the lens of critical thinking. Class titles should merely be masks, subterfuge for what’s really happening inside classrooms. Our students should be learning vital skills to become safe, thoughtful, creative, and open-minded global citizens. Right? (At this point, you should be excitedly applauding or clicking the tiny X at the top of your browser to close this window.)
As teachers should really be the best students, I make it a priority to stay up to date with current educational research and pedagogy from around the world. I read several articles and blog entries on a weekly basis to be sure that I am always working towards becoming the best possible teacher for my students. Each weekend, when I dig deep into the goldmine of educational research, I find articles talking about the importance of content over skills as well as articles all about how skills are more valuable than content knowledge. So, which articles speak the truth? Who would win in a battle between skills and content? Is one more important than the other? Can you teach students skills without using content knowledge as the delivery vehicle? Is it possible to regurgitate content class after class without teaching or having the students utilize any skills?
I see it more as a symbiotic relationship. It shouldn’t be a skills vs. content kind of discussion, it should be a skills and content sort of hybrid discussion. Our students need to learn content knowledge nuggets in order to navigate this strange and wonderful world in which we live; however, they can’t effectively learn or keep those nuggets of knowledge safely stored in their brains without skills. Our students need to know how the brain learns and operates so that they can then learn effective ways or skills to effectively store information in their memory banks. All teachers and classes should be teaching students about the neuroscience of learning. Our students need to gain important life and learning skills in order to become effective global citizens, and content is the perfect way for teachers to be sure that their students are effectively, and in engaging ways, learning and practicing these crucial skills. Content and skills go hand-in-hand like sun butter and jelly or red and green. Students need both to succeed in life.
I’ve recently been contemplating this dual role of content and skills in my classroom. My fifth graders and I are in the midst of a wonderfully engaging unit on Mesopotamia in Social Studies class. I’m using the content of this ancient civilization to help my students learn the valuable skills of effective and organized note taking, being able to pick out the main idea over the details in passages of text, comparing and contrasting two different ideas, using specific examples to support their claims, and problem solving and critical thinking as they pertain to particular situations. On Thursday and Friday, I used the history of writing and the creation of Sumerian Cuneiform as the vehicle for which I could teach my students how to sift through details to get at the main idea as well as how to think critically about a topic in order to answer open-ended questions. My students were enthralled with the video we watched and were totally engaged in the discussion that grew from the knowledge of how the Sumerians created writing. It was so cool to observe my students getting excited about ancient history. They were asking high-level questions and able to comprehend and address the challenging questions and scenarios I posed to them. It was so much fun. I thought about the skills and content the students were learning together. It was pretty remarkable. It wasn’t about the content or skills, it was about the relationship between them. My students crave knowledge and content. They are like sponges in the classroom, always asking why and how. As they love learning about topics and things, I need them to gain vital skills. I give them what they want while teaching them what they need to become and grow into successful students and global thinkers. I need to utilize the content in order to help my students gain the necessary skills they will need as they matriculate into the next grade and so on.
I used to think that teaching was all about the content. Isn’t that why there are so many different textbook companies in existence? Then, like a pendulum, I started to see skills as the important part of educating students. When I focused solely on the skills, I found that student engagement went down. That’s when I started to see content and skills as a duo and not hero and villain match-up. They need to be used together to help students learn and grow. I can’t teach my students necessary learning skills without the attraction of the content area knowledge. The facts and information are like the bait I use to get students hooked onto the line of learning how to be effective students, thinkers, and individuals.
Instead of a wrestling match, we should be picturing content and skills frolicking through a field of daises and sunflowers, holding hands and smiling at each other, while in the background, soft jazz or elevator music plays as the sun shines down upon our two lovebirds. Ahh, how cute would that be, right?