The either/or conundrum pops up again. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than clear-sighted light, nonetheless.
The last post describing Will Colglazier’s lesson on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (and a previous lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression) seemingly focused on the skills historians use in examining a primary source for bias and close reading of a document. Yet both lessons were chock-full of content. Thus, content vs. skills offers a false choice. The more appropriate question about teaching an academic subject like history is: where on a continuum of content at one pole and skills at the other pole, would you place yourself?
Some teachers would be smack in the center, equally dividing their lessons into mixes of both depending on the topic they were teaching; other teachers would tilt toward the skills or content side. All teachers would have a center of gravity along that continuum. I, for one, would place myself on near the center but clearly on the skills side of the continuum.
In comments on the description of Will Colglazier’s lessons, a few illustrate the mix of both content and skill and how it differs among teachers. Here’s one comment from a teacher who teaches both math and history.
… I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history…. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.
Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.
So one kid, who is severely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work, crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”
Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest….
As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.
A few weeks ago, I saw the above teacher teach four classes in a row, three of advanced math and one U.S. History. Recalling how she taught, I would guess that she would be close to the center of the above continuum but clearly tilting toward the skills side of the spectrum. I do not know where she would place herself.
Wherever she or I would place ourselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again even though it ignores the obvious differences to where teachers are in managing both content and skills. Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who wrestle with how best to teach a subject. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning the next day’s lesson.
Such decisions about teaching a subject are hardly new. Earlier generations of history teachers used primary sources, read documents carefully, found corroborating evidence for the source and worked their students as if they were historians. Will Colglazier’s lessons were preceded by a movement called The New Social Studies in the 1960s where much of what Colglazier was doing in his lessons happened a half-century ago.
The next post deals with that earlier movement to teach students how to read and think like a historian.