Content vs. Skills in High Schools: 21st Century Arguments Echo 19th Century Conflicts

Did you ever remember a melody and could even hum it but cannot, for the life of you, recall the words? That happens a lot to me. I thought of that as I read more and more about “soft skills” as an essential for 21st century students eventually entering the workplace. Working in teams, being able to motivate others, persevere at tasks, navigate organizational tricky waters, and lead–these are the skills that high schools today should teach youth.

Hey, what about content? What about intellectual acuity to develop and display a substantive argument anchored in facts? As David Brooks says in a recent op-ed: “Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of mind you bring to the group.”  “The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom,” he writes, are “based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.”  Soft skills, he concludes, have to be taught “alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed. The rules have have to be learned before they can be played with and broken.”

Brooks’ argument for learning has been made by earlier generations of reformers who wore the late-19th century clothes of Progressives and Traditionalists. Here is where my humming tries to recapture the lyrics of the song. The language reformers then used may sound off-key  to 21st century ears, but the conflict over what subjects and skills should be taught in schools rang loud and clear over a century ago.

Listen to this math teacher lecture his colleagues:

The laboratory method has … the flexibility which permits’ students to be handled as individuals or in groups. The instructor utilizes all the experience and insight of the whole body of students. He arranges it so that the students consider that they are studying the subject itself, and not the words, either printed or oral, of any authority on the subject. And in this study they should be in the closest cooperation with one another and with their instructor, who is in a desirable sense one of them and their leader.

 Instructors may fear that the brighter students will suffer if encouraged to spend time in cooperation with those not so bright. But experience shows that just as every teacher learns by teaching, so even the brightest students will find themselves much the gainers for this co-operation with their colleagues.

 …[T]he student might be brought into vital relation with the fundamental elements of trigonometry, analytic geometry and the calculus, on condition that the whole treatment in its origin is and in its development remains closely associated with thoroughly concrete phenomena. With the momentum of such practical education in the methods of research in the secondary school, the college students would be ready to proceed rapidly and deeply in any direction in which their personal interests might lead them (1631286).

E. H. Moore, exiting President of the American Mathematical Society, trained a generation of mathematics professors at the University of Chicago. He was an advocate of tying together both content and pedagogy. He urged that school math lessons cover two instructional periods (rather than one) so teachers and students would have sufficient time to both understand the beauty of math and apply it to their daily lives. He wrote this article in 1903.

The either/or conundrum pops up again and again over the decades. 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 light, nonetheless. For example, many content-driven teachers also know about “pedagogical content knowledge” which means that in teaching history, math, science or any academic subject, the teacher knows the usual misconceptions and skill gaps that most students have, say, in teaching evolution or quadratic equation or the American Civil War. Such teachers blend knowledge of their content with those cognitive skills students need. And many teachers are just as familiar with the “soft skills” that current reformers tout. Those smart teachers blend “soft” and “hard” skills embedding both in the content that they teach using their knowledge of the subject to sequence how and what they teach. Not easy to do but many teachers have done so.

No either/or choice. There is a continuum with skills (hard, soft,etc) at one end and content knowledge at the other end. Most teachers–K-12 or higher education–would place themselves somewhere along that continuum. I, for one, put myself at the center tilting a tad toward the skills side. Wherever teachers  place themselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again–as it does in Brooks’ op-ed–even though it ignores past conflicts over the same issues and obvious ways that many teachers manage both content and skills. 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 and teaching the day’s lesson.


Filed under school reform policies

21 responses to “Content vs. Skills in High Schools: 21st Century Arguments Echo 19th Century Conflicts

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    In this discussion, and in so many others, there Is a conspicuous omission of attention, for better or worse, of studies in the arts, and foreign languages, and the prospect of transdisciplinary studies, among these “social studies. ”
    Of course, the self-anointed experts who invented the CCSS decided to dump the arts into a category that defined them as “technical subjects,” basically of no consequence or interest at all unless those studies were focused on techniques and skills useful for a vocation. Remarkably, I have not heard any outcry from the larger community of educators in the arts about that classification. Indeed the new arts standards were written to be in sync withthe CCSS and the so-called 21st Century skills marketed by the tech lobbiest Ken Kay.
    Now the hot topic is social emotional learning (SEL) what USDE calls “Skills for Success” these to be formalized into grade-band standards and tested, with or without “integration” into the regular curriculum. SEL is all about grit, having a growth mindset, self-control, resilience and other so-called “non-cognitive” skills. In any case, I appreciate the historical perspective and have the same sort of mental balance point on the content/skills, but neither of those distinctions address the matter of affinities and curiosity, which can make students passionate learners.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Laura. I had not known about where the arts were slotted in CCSS and the place that social-emotional skills occupy.

    • Affinities and curiosity are so important for motivation. In lieu of that, being able to feel successful can be motivating.

      I am so sick of hearing the word “grit”. I hate it.

  2. Aflarend

    There is also the false idea promulgated by some that all teachers have to agree on where they should be on the continuum, that there needs to be standardization. I do not think we need to agree except perhaps that both skill types need to be addressed in some way.

    • larrycuban

      Getting most teachers to agree on the continuum is impossible because of the variable beliefs that K-12 teachers across the U.S. have about teaching,learning,and knowledge.
      What’s fascinating to me is that in my career as a teacher I moved across parts of the continuum as I learned more about history, got experienced in teaching, and understood what my students perceived and misperceived about history. In short, where teachers place themselves on the continuum depends on their experience, situation, age, etc.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • I don’t think of it as a dichotomy or a continuum, but rather that knowledge and skills have to be integrated from the beginning. But then, my field is foreign language, and you certainly need content, but there are many skills involved and without the skills, it isn’t very useful.

      Maybe it also depends on the content area. It seems, for example, that by their natures, math would be heavier on the skills and history on knowledge.

      This makes me think also of the argument of phonics versus whole language, and again, I think both are equally important, though it may depend somewhat on the individual student.

      I always think that most techniques, methods, and strategies have validity; the trick is to know when best to apply each one.

  3. Steve Davis

    The Common Core treats reading as if it were reducible to “portable” skills (standards). English teachers aren’t supposed to teach content anymore. It’s all about skills. It’s necessary and quite natural to blend content and skills in the classroom. A problem occurs when the assessment of student mastery of those skills occurs without regard to content. I find it troubling when summative assessments in English classes (or standardized tests like the SBAC) expect skills to be “portable” regardless of content. Students (especially struggling students) may demonstrate mastery of certain skills in class when content is scaffolded for them, then fail to demonstrate mastery of those same skills when presented with the same tasks in an unfamiliar context. Imagine you taught your students how to write theme statements for To Kill a Mockingbird and then then their assessment asked them to write theme statements for Lord of the Flies. Comparing apples to oranges, isn’t it? However, this is considered an “objective” measure of students’ mastery of skills by some because students haven’t been taught the skill within the context of the new content. Too many students lack the vocabulary and background knowledge needed to insure that the skills taught are “portable”. These assessments become mere reading tests instead of indicators of mastery of skills (standards).

    • larrycuban

      So nice to hear from you, Steve. Thanks for the specifics on Common Core skills and tests that assume “transfer” from one piece of content studied in classroom (To Kill a Mockingbird) to another situation, a test that looks at other content (Lord of the Flies).

  4. Have you seen Nick Rose’s efforts to poll teachers about the dichotomies in education? Not a representative sample, just self-selecting responses, and I’m not sure how many map on to your dichotomy here, but of those who responded there do seem to be genuine division. Teachers do seem to be split on some pretty fundamental matters, not spread out along a continuum or clumped in the middle.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Andrew, for linking me to Nick Rose’s poll of self-selected respondents. Beliefs, as Rose’s poll shows may well be split as he says. Classroom practices, however, of those very same teachers–as I have found in U.S. samples I have observed, may still hug the middle of the continuum. Thanks for comment.

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  7. Reblogged this on The DigiTeacher and commented:
    This insightful piece has helped me sharpen my thinking around a number of issues. All too often we set up false dichotomies which stifle our thinking.

  8. Day

    We are enjoying reading this today in my English class-and learning a lot! Thanks to Julie Fowler our librarian for finding this and for my 8th period class working so hard on learning!

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