A Layman’s Common Sense Take on 21st Century Skills: Process and Content

a tale of two... well, you fill it in with what you want.

I‘m part of a discussion group that shares and analyzes all sorts of education-related information. When a good article comes up [or a particularly bad one, I suppose] we talk about it.

Dan Willingham, whose work I think is top-notch, has a piece on the Britannica Blog called “Education for the 21st Century: Balancing Content Knowledge with Skills” – and it’s worth reading. He makes the case that there’s a conceptual pendulum that swings between content knowledge and skills [which I prefer to call 'process,' so consider the terms interchangeable here]. I’ll go along with the ‘pendulum’ imagery because I can’t think of an example that expresses the push/pull dynamic that I think is appropriate – and a ‘tug of war’ doesn’t fit [vectors in physics? Maybe...].

I’ve pasted below a note I wrote this afternoon that exposes some of my thoughts on the issue. Parts are tangential because it was in the context of a broader discussion. I edited out a few sentences for clarity.

Food for thought below the scroll.

re: “Speaking about the pendulum, Dan Willingham was talking about the pendulum of content and critical thinking and how it always seems to sway too far one way or the other.  We need both content and the ability to analyze it… Anyway, we are now, clearly, at the analyze it – without any content knowledge stage which is terrible.”

I think this pendulum, if there is one, is driven by the lack of talent in the prospective teaching corps and the dolts who run the ed schools… over decades we’ve gradually moved toward process and away from content in a way that matches perfectly the abilities and limits of those involved in education. This is why I rail on about GRE scores and the like – if we get more highly-capable, talented people in education, they’ll a) come with more content and b) be able to handle even more.

Then ed schools and professional development can focus on effective ‘process’ – and I mean actually focus on it in a transparent, accountable way. Fill their halls with students who at least have solid content knowledge and we’ll see more accountability for some of these useless, baseless ideas in ed.

Poof! Process/content pendulum balanced. [BTW, "poof" is Olde English for "over 3 decades, several professional wars and depending on a cultural shift."]

I find some faults with Willingham’s piece here, but it reminds me of how I like to explain how content matters with ‘critical thinking.’ I use movie critics. How can a Kyle Smith or an Ebert critique movies meaningfully? They’ve seen hundreds, thousands. They’ve got a mass of content knowledge that allows them to *gasp* think critically about the subject. No content, no criticism, no analysis, no value.

It takes about 13 seconds to explain this to a kid and see the light bulb go off. Play them some new song, whether it’s a rap song or Britney Spears’ new album [the song "Womanizer" is surprisingly catchy, btw] and ask them if they like it. It’s awesome, it sucks, whatever – ask them why and they’ll tell you in a sentence or two.

Play them… the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet or Kenny Rogers and ask them to evaluate it. They can’t go beyond “HAHA THAT SUCKS” because they’ve never heard the genre. They retreat to the ‘process’/analytical side because they simply have no content knowledge to reference.

Britney or Lil Wayne? They can compare it to thousands of similar songs and evaluate it accordingly. That’s using content knowledge along with process/analytical ability to get a result.

No content knowledge, no worthwhile result.

No “21st century skills” here, either.

9 Responses to “A Layman’s Common Sense Take on 21st Century Skills: Process and Content”

  1. Brendan says:

    Today’s theme for me seems to be finding the balance between building skills and building critical thinking. Here is the other blog I felt compelled to comment on today

    Considering I am attempting to build some demo units in Social Studies for work this is not a bad thing.

  2. Brendan,

    Coach Brown’s blog entry is either deliberately dishonest or he badly misses the point. I don’t know him at all, and I haven’t read his site in a while, so I won’t guess which of the two it is. Here’s what I mean:

    “Michelle is correct, if kids can’t read then teachers are not doing their job. However, the idea that teachers should ignore the focus on “The Love of Learning” is pretty much dead wrong and equals bad teaching. ”

    That Rhee said teachers should “ignore the focus on “The Love of Learning”" is an invention of Coach Brown, not Rhee.

    I suppose that some read things as they’d like to read them, though, not necessarily as they are.

  3. Michael says:

    Matthew, assume he missed the point; it is both more charitable and generally more accurate. He did misread her statement, but Rhee comes across as a jerk, so that probably colored his reading of her. The point he was trying to make, I think, is that her style may well destroy her substance. We’ll see.

    BTW, I agree with you entirely about Willingham. I assign many of his articles to my students.

  4. i’m not sure that the changes in fashion are due mostly or entirely to teachers or ed school folks. . .policy makers also play a role, I think. And probably the public as well. . .emphases in education may have cycles of faddishness just like the length of hemlines or anything else. . . love your music example, btw. . .

  5. Michael,

    re: Rhee, or what I like to call Michelle Rhee Derangement Syndrome [MRDS], it just isn’t acceptable to me for a teacher to engage in colored reading. No need for us to go into an objectivity vs. subjectivity debate – we’re human, we’ve all got limits on our ability to comprehend objectively – but there’s a phrase I use often… ‘intellectual honesty.’ That, along with disinterested inquiry, is one of the chief responsibilities of anyone in education. When someone is a “jerk” or rude or anything else, it simply doesn’t matter – one’s skin needs to be less important than truth.

    Teachers and admins – everyone in education, really – need to have the courage not to hide behind criticism of Rhee’s style. In my opinion, they don’t.

  6. Dan,

    I don’t think it’s mostly or entirely due to teachers/ed schools – there are tons of factors at play. Policy makers, social forces, all sorts have contributed to this. I just went with the most professionally-relevant to the argument.

    And thanks on the music example, I’ve found it to work well. Country, classical, rap, doesn’t matter – whatever genre one isn’t familiar with is a personal example of how lacking content knowledge makes any sort of meaningful critical analysis impossible.

  7. Michael says:

    When someone is a “jerk” or rude or anything else, it simply doesn’t matter – one’s skin needs to be less important than truth.

    Sure it does, because we’re talking about communication. If I’m a jerk to my students, I can’t expect them to learn. Everything I’ve read about Rhee says she’s bright, talented, and profoundly rude. “Colored reading” is simply reading with more than the bare text as a guide. If my experience has taught me that the person speaking is a jerk who doesn’t care about other people, that experience informs my understanding of what he says; so would my experience of the speaker as kind and empathetic. Again, I think Coach Brown simply misread her, and I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to quibble about it.

  8. Coach Brown says:

    Sorry, but having done some serious investigating into how Rhee handles the operations of the schools, I don’t think my analysis is that far off that mark. In that interview and others she has made the subject of “Love of Learning” seem mutually exclusive to the understanding of fundamental principals of learning. Your assumption that I’m reading the single article and basing my thesis on it is wrong.
    I’ll add that I’ve been an advocate for Michelle Rhee for awhile, but I’m slowly watching her lack of educator experience and authoritarian management style do little but alienate staff and kids.
    I find it interesting that you accuse me of being intellectually dishonest. It’s a sign that you (as you admitted) haven’t get up with my interest in Rhee, or in education in general. It could be entirely possible that Rhee is (as Michael stated) bright, talented, and a complete jackass. That means she is missing an important piece of the puzzle of effective management. I would also argue that for her to effectively manage her position, she needs to have spent more time in a classroom to understand what goes on in the most important location in education.
    I question people that blindly follow leaders that simply shake the status quo without understanding all the variables of the situation. I respect her tenacity and passion, but her actions as a manager are starting to speak for themselves and it ain’t good.

  9. Coach Brown,

    It’s a bit late to get to your comment right now – I’ll do it tomorrow. If you’d like to rethink any part of it, you’re welcome to do so.


  1. » Blog Archive » The Pendulum Swings…or does it? - [...] skills, and how they relate to assessment design (my area of interest). Matthew K. Tabor wrote a follow-up post ...

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