How we teach skills and content for a balanced education

Oct 07 2022

How we teach skills and content for a balanced education

“Collecting facts is important. Knowledge is important. But if you don’t have an imagination to use the knowledge, civilization is nowhere.”
–Ray Bradbury

Matching wits with Keystone Upper School students can be a humbling experience. Last week, Dr. Brian Lawrence, who teaches 9th grade English, 11th Grade AP English, and sponsors the Cobra Quiz Bowl team asked me if I would like to join the students for a practice session on Friday mornings.

Always up for a challenge and spending time with students, I eagerly accepted his offer and at 7:45 a.m. joined approximately fifteen students to answer questions ranging from literature to science to history to math. Armed with a handheld buzzer device, I jumped in when I knew an answer or consulted with my teammates when we could discuss our response.

While I like to think I held my own on questions regarding historical events, authors, or books, I quickly became aware of these high schooler’s depth of knowledge in a variety of fields. Simply put, they destroyed me in a number of categories.

At one point, when I complimented the 9th grader sitting next to me for answering a series of questions around mathematical concepts, he nicely explained that everybody knew these theories. I thought maybe not everyone was so familiar with the explanations he took for granted.

The quiz bowl practice session proved to be both fun and illuminating. The competition was fierce and good natured; even students on opposing teams praised each other when someone answered a particularly vexing question. I appreciated these students’ impressive knowledge and collegiality.

As I reflected later on Friday morning’s experience, I also reconsidered the debate on how and what schools should teach students in a time when so much information is literally at their fingertips. Smartphones today resemble small computers more than the rotary dial telephones of my day, and there’s little in the way of facts we cannot learn by whipping out our devices and Googling a question. My family rolls their eyes when I repeat my mantra of “And this is why we have Smartphones” regarding an inquiry.

So, in the limited time we have with students, do we focus on teaching children skills or content? The debate over this seeming dichotomy has divided educators for several decades now.

Some people say that if we teach isolated facts, we prepare students for not much more than playing Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, and they will be woefully unprepared for a world that requires application of knowledge. This argument proposes that concepts only mean something when they are properly situated; absent this contextualization, they remain senseless. Proponents of this approach say we should use the finite time we have to concentrate first and foremost on teaching students skills.

On the other side of this debate stand those who explain that teaching skills absent content knowledge fails to prepare students for the next phase of their education. They would say that obviously students need to know how to read and write, but they also require knowledge of certain agreed upon facts and theories to make sense and develop thoughtful arguments.

Otherwise, these young people have no foundation for the arguments they create. For example, a student cannot argue that a literary character’s travails make her like Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” if one hasn’t read it; similarly, another student cannot debate whether today’s political polarization has similarities to other periods in American history if she has not studied those eras.

Having watched these discussions roil educator circles for decades now, I hope we have come to a point where we agree that both content and skills are important. Each side of the equation is necessary for students to learn and grow, and neither is sufficient to fully prepare children for the world they will encounter once they graduate from Keystone.

University of Virginia Psychology Professor and writer Daniel T. Willingham says in his book “Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom:”

“There is no doubt that having students memorize lists of dry facts is not enriching. It is also true (though less often appreciated) that trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible.”

During the quiz bowl practice, I heard students explain how they knew the answers by saying “We just discussed this concept in class this week” or “I learned this when we were working on these problems.”

Maybe we’ve reached a point where we can say that content without the necessary skills may be impressive at a cocktail party but is not very useful in today’s world where one has to be flexible and information is malleable; on the other hand, the requisite skills without the background factual knowledge in any discipline can render students feeling ignorant and out of touch when they need to apply what they have learned to new ideas or different areas.

As is so often true in a variety of ways, I marvel at the way Keystone teachers guide their students in learning the content they need to know and hone the skills they require. As we hear so often from our graduates when they head off to college, Cobras are more than ready for the next level of their educational journey based on what and how they learned at Keystone.

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