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.