Teaching Content & Teaching Skills

There is an undeniable movement toward the teaching and assessing skills and not simply content.  Stepping back and looking at the educational process has caused many of us to think:  what has endurance for our students?  What has value in careers, college and beyond?  Teaching transferable skills with leverage is essential: a point few will argue against.

Yet, there is prerequisite knowledge required to teach such skills.  Memorization and understanding of this core knowledge is sometimes seen as a “right of passage” to the next level or course.   The importance of teaching the skills and avoiding an over emphasis of content alone leads to conversations of a “content vs skills” crossroads.

It is not a crossroad! Content and skills are two sides of the same coin, both necessary for the other.  Getting some teachers to see the importance of explicit skill instruction and assessment of the learning in that skill is a challenge.

Passionate About Our Content

Most content teachers started teaching Chemistry, American Government, or other specialized course because they were passionate about the content and wanted to share that with young people.  I was not different.

Changing careers from the professional science laboratory to the high school science classroom found me diving into the High School Sciences with an intensity resulting in teenagers reciting all sorts of impressive scientific vocabulary and facts.

But the facts just didn’t stick.  Three years later,  I was aghast.  I was heartbroken. The content, so wonderfully memorized and recited had vanished from the brains of my students.  After I got over my initial dismay, I began to reflect. What would the typical student learn that would “stick with” them and not be dumped for other quickly memorized facts in another course?

Endurance of Learning

Teaching students with goals of learning that will be useful beyond a particular class or course means identification of what has endurance.  This includes information & skills students continue to use, apply and grow; Information & skills that are relevant to the student; Information & skills with leverage and applicability to other classes, careers and life.

Memorization of facts, dates, or terms is not the end game. Little of this has direct relevance to a student’s life after they complete the course.  Thus, little of this has endurance. Skills that are transferable to other classes, courses and even careers would have endurance.  Yet working with other passionate content area teachers, many felt this discussion presented them a choice: content focused lessons or skills focused lessons.

The Clash: Skills vs Content

Let’s not mince words:  content is important.  But, the immense size of a typical biology text or social studies text itself proves that there is clearly more content available to teach than time. Teachers are already prioritizing–spending more time on some content and less on other content, skipping some sections of the text in favor of more depth in others.

When it is suggested that the faculty add the teaching of skills in an already packed curriculum, immediately we begin to worry we will have to “cut out” a favorite unit or topic.  The thought of watering-down the content is a strong fear.  Some teachers even balk at the conversation itself because the fear of losing content is so strong.

Its NOT ONE or the OTHER

It is not a battle.  We need teachers to see the importance of both.  Skills without the content have no depth or richness.  We must help teachers see they are not abandoning content for teaching skills.  In fact, abandoning content for only a skill based curriculum would be nearly impossible: content is what students will read, analyze, and apply.  Content is the arena for the student to apply the skill.

Rather, we are highlighting the skills we use when teaching content, explicitly instructing and mentoring students in those skills, and then measuring and monitoring student progress in those skills over several units.  Applying those skills to several different sections of the course content.

Nothing should be watered down. In fact, the simple memorization of facts and recall of information is at a very low level of cognitive demand.  It is only when the teacher asks students to apply, analyze and begin to draw connections between the bits of information that the students launch into the deeper, more difficult levels of cognitive demand.  Thus, to engage in complex thinking, teachers need to guide students past pure memorization: to the application of their subject!  These are the skills we highlight.

Skills Give Content Flight

Each of the many, many units a teacher covers in the course of a class’s curriculum is connected by one thing:  the repeated use of transferable skills such as analysis of data, reading text in that content area, analysis of primary sources, critical thinking, and more.  These skills are the elements that let the content take flight beyond simple memorization of facts.  Skills based instruction is what gets a student from “memorizing” to “doing,” and really engaging in their learning in a way that will stick with the students for a long time to come.


Education is not the learning of facts...

Anne Weerda
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Anne Weerda

This article was written by Kids at the Core founder, Anne Weerda.

Anne is an assessment and curriculum specialist best known for her work in assessment design, data analysis and instructional effectiveness. Anne is a sought after speaker in the area of assessment design, curriculum and instruction.
Anne Weerda
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