I saw a Facebook post this week where a teacher was asked in an interview, “What’s more important, teaching content or skills?” The extensive thread of comments were fascinating with people taking all kinds of positions from choosing one side, calling it a stupid question, or pointing out that it’s not an either/or question. While I can agree that it seems like some kind of gotcha question for an interview, I do have a strong opinion on this one (No surprise there!).
I will always argue for skills over content, specifically Social and Emotional Learning skills. But let’s start by only considering core content skills vs. content. The standards that have been ordained from on high for us to teach in schools represent such a minute fraction of the knowledge of the world. New human understanding grows exponentially every second. Textbooks need to be updated due to errors and better understandings of the world. Something as crucial as how the human brain works was barely understood 30 years ago. Therefore I would argue that the most important standards are the ones focused on skills such as problem-solving, reading and writing fluency, critical analysis, and scientific reasoning.
In making the argument for skills over content, I am not saying that content does not matter at all. Of course it does, but it is less vital.
- A student with strong observation and reasoning skills can study the background of a science topic and design an experiment to test a hypothesis. Better yet, they know what to do with unexpected results and how to iterate to develop a theory.
- When a student has number sense and mathematical reasoning, they can solve new problems without having to be taught algorithms first.
- A student who knows how to interpret analogies, metaphors, and similes can apply their skills to poetry from an author that they have never read previously.
- When a student knows how to evaluate primary sources for point of view and author intention, they can apply historical thinking to present day current events.
SEL competencies may seem even more removed from content, but I would argue that they are the most important skills of all. Long after students forget the content of the class, we still want them to be quality humans. Our dream for students is that they would be Self and Socially Aware, recognizing strengths in themselves and in the diversity of the world around them. We want to develop students who build strong relationships with colleagues, family, and friends. The world needs future leaders who can resolve differences through respectful negotiation, not senseless violence. Complex issues such as climate change, global inequity, and socio-political power struggles require Responsible Decision-Makers who consider multiple perspective and move in directions to benefit all of humanity, not just wealthy nations.
- Perseverance and growth mindset in Self-Awareness teach students to work through academic difficulties.
- The organizational skills of Self-Management lead to quality work completed on time.
- Social Awareness helps students analyze situations from multiple perspectives.
- Communication and collaboration of Relationship Skills enables students to exchange complex ideas in written and verbal forms.
- The problem solving of Responsible Decision-Making leads to deep understanding of academic content and its application to real world problems.
Returning to the original situation, is this a legitimate interview question? Again, I would argue yes. My assumption, unless shown otherwise through stories and examples told, is that the teacher who thinks content is king tends to be less progressive. They probably use lecture as their primary tool to “deliver” content to their class and may be skeptical of PBL. So the explanation that a prospective teacher gives for their choice, not necessarily the choice itself, should reveal useful details about their pedagogy and style of teaching to determine whether they are a good fit with the school beliefs and culture.
What say you? Content or skills? Which one do you value more?
Interested in learning how you can develop SEL skills integrated in your classroom? Check out my virtual workshops this summer! I am also booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.
If we are ever going to shift away from an adult based, content heavy curriculum then what should we expect students to learn in schools? I am talking about a system where students are free to study according to their passions and interests. A system of projects designed by students and teachers together. A system that has no bells, no “classes.” The type of school where students drive all aspects of the learning.
I am going to argue that there is a core set of skills that all children should learn. I am also going to argue that this list is enough for all children to be successful. Implicit in this list is that all children are going to learn “how to learn” anything they choose to independently. By independently I do not mean in isolation, but without adult direction. That is each student should know how to research and connect with others who are experts to learn anything that they choose to.
It is a short list and probably each item deserves a separate post to describe what it is and isn’t. Here is my list of the skills that every student should learn:
Reading Students will learn to read all kinds of texts and genres as they are naturally exposed to them through classmates, parents, teachers, and exploring their passions through projects.
Writing Students will learn to write all kinds of texts and genres as they are naturally required to through their projects.
Speaking Students will learn to share their learning publicly developing important communication skills.
Computing Students will learn basic math computations as required by their exploration in projects. “Advanced” math will be learned in context when needed. All students will need an understanding of algebraic thinking and more emphasis should be spent on statistics.
Collaborating Students will learn the social skills of working together with others and how to take on different roles in different situations.
Problem Solving Students will learn to ask questions with depth. Emphasis will be on analyzing and evaluating results, rather than on the solutions.
Critical Thinking Students will learn to look at problems and situations from multiple viewpoints. Students will learn to identify and evaluate bias.
Empathy Students will learn to look at problems from multiple viewpoints and understand and relate to competing views.
This list represents everything that I think students should know how to do. It is absent of any specific “content” but applies to any subject that adults can make up. It is heavy on the 4C’s but intentionally omits creativity because I don’t believe that we need to teach or assess it. Adults just need to allow space and creativity will happen. It is innate in all humans.
What do you think? Anything missing? Unclear? Could this ever be the real national standards in the US or anywhere? Why not?