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”
- jeremyywang.com » 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 ...