The Great Debate: Content vs Skills

Today I had a brief, but very interesting conversation with some of my colleagues about the future of education and the debate over content versus skill. As education changes rapidly and more and more information is just a few clicks away, should we still center our classrooms on mastery of content, or should we begin to focus more on developing certain skills? This is a topic that interests me a great deal, and one that resonates particularly well with me since I am a history teacher.

Because most of my own education in history consisted of acquiring MA and Phd. D degrees, it should come as no surprise that I entered teaching fully convinced of the need to master content. However, the longer I teach, and especially since I have started to use a fair amount of tech in my classes, my views on this issue have changed. Today, I am not longer sure that it is all that necessary to teach students about the battle at Platea; instead, that time could be spent developing my students’ abilities to conduct sound historical research or some other skill that would enable them to locate useful and accurate information about that vey battle.

Do not misunderstand me. Content is still important, and there are certain basic things that every informed citizen should know, but it seems to me that it is no longer critical to go into the great detail that many history textbooks still do. To be sure, I still think that content can and should be used to teach skills, so in a way, this issue is perhaps not as polarized as one might think.

But, I have started to believe that focusing my teaching on how to think critically, how to analyze a source, how to sift through multiple sources for the correct information, how to write well in many different forums, how to unleash the creative spirit, how to be a compassionate human, how to collaborate in person and online, and how to create new knowledge–that is what really matters. Whereas before we often taught content and then made sure some skills came along with that content, maybe it is time to alter that relationship to focus more on the latter and less on the former.

To get our students prepared for a rapidly changing world, we need them to possess as many skills as possible, and if we have to sacrifice certain parts of the content as we develop these skills, well, that might not be such a bad thing after all. As my ideas on this topic are still very much evolving, I would love to hear what others have to say. Any and all comments are greatly appreciated as they no doubt will help me further clarify my own thinking.

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