Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

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.




Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

9 responses to “Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

  1. JMK

    Interesting. I think of myself as tilted more towards content than skills–you did see me on a mostly skills-based day in history. I’m not going to push back hard, though, since I don’t really know how other teachers teach history–and you may be right. Here’s a sample test–would you call this skills or content focused? Not a rhetorical question.

    And then there’s this:

    “Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who wrestle with how best to teach a subject. ”

    Yes. Exactly. Because what I’ve realized is that if I just *tell* them the content, they don’t remember! So what if I’m focused on content but have realized that giving the kids something to do—read, evaluate a map, or some other “skills” activity–is the best way to get them to remember the content?

    I definitely sacrifice content coverage to be sure they remember what I teach. Is that content focused or skills focused? Again, not a rhetorical question.

    Wrestle is exactly right.

  2. Reblogged this on The Sausage Machine and commented:
    Wie zegt het? In Nederland (en ja dus ook in Vlaanderen) hoor & zie ik de eeuwige discussie weer stevig oplaaien #onderwijs2032.

  3. What does it actually mean to be near the centre? Can’t anyone claim that as long as they can think of some extremes to be between, regardless of how common those extremes are? Often with the skills versus knowledge questions the debates are over whether the skills actually exist and are teachable, or whether the knowledge is important. It is hard to find a middle position in these debates.

    I don’t know if you read either of these two blogs from England, one by a (history) teacher trainer and one by a history teacher, but I would recommend some of their posts about this issue.

    • larrycuban


      Thanks for links to the posts on history. I would like to use Heather’s on knowledge and skills and her experiences as a guest post. As for your point of “it is hard to find a middle position in these debates” over content vs. skills, I can only say that I have been on the content side of the continuum–not at the extreme end but, over the years in teaching history I have moved to the middle (chronological story of the past with strong emphasis on critical thinking skills–I can delineate them, if you like) to the other side of the middle with far more emphasis on skills within content exposition but far from the extreme end of total skills teaching. I do see both on the same continuum not on separate continua. Thank you for commenting.

  4. JMK

    I’m on my way up to Washington for a vacation via the Oregon coast, giving me lots of scenery and time to think.

    Larry, I have mulled and mulled your comment, and suddenly recalled a recent conversation I had with a fellow math teacher I am mentoring, who mentioned her concern that “all the other algebra teachers were going so fast.” She’s a third year teacher, and doesn’t like to lose too many kids by pushing too fast. I encouraged her to trust her instincts.

    I reduce coverage to focus on content. I don’t just want to cover things and lose everyone who can’t keep up, or give them a test and forget it. I want them to remember a lot of it, probably with an “oh yeah, that’s right” approach (that is, reminders and nudges). I want my kids to feel, during class, as if they understood what was going on.

    Andrew says the debate is over whether or not the skills exist, or can be taught, versus whether the knowledge is important. On the last point, I am unconflicted: of course the knowledge is important. That’s why I want them to remember it. Kids simply don’t remember what they’ve been taught. I see this time and again in my math classes, regardless of who taught them or how. I see my own students in subsequent years, and yes, they forget stuff. But they also remember a lot, and are as competent or more so in the subsequent courses, while I see many students who took courses that covered much more, got As, and remember very little.

    What “skill” am I teaching in math? I want them to be able to approach and attack a problem, to think about the appropriate tools to use, to access their own prior math knowledge.

    What “skill” am I teaching in history? I do lecture and explain. But I am also giving my kids the opportunity to look at content and find patterns. To make sense of maps and the impact geography has on economy and migration. And most of all, I want my kids to learn how to read and understand and build their own content knowledge.

    I absolutely believe these skills are teachable, and I am as certain as I can be that many students simply have no idea how to take on these tasks. But as you say, it’s always in the service of content exposition. (great phrase!)

    As you can see, I’m very much in flux on this new insight or question about my own teaching.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Michele. The wrestling continues. You are neither the first nor last teacher of history to struggle with the right mix of content and skills that fits your views of what’s important to students leaving your class. Have a fine holiday.

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