Time to Re-Sort the Relationship Between Curriculum Content and Learning Skills

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There was a time when students came to school because it was where the information and knowledge needed for success in life was housed—in the teacher’s head, textbooks, and the library. Our forefathers designed schools to distribute information and knowledge among the population to make our society work better and to give citizens greater opportunities in life.

Consequently, schools depended on direct instruction of a set of facts, dictated sequences, standard procedures, and tested approaches for solving largely predictable problems and situations in life. Students were expected to listen, practice, and follow the direction of those who knew what they needed to learn. To be clear, the system worked well enough for most people and our society reaped significant benefits from the knowledge residing in its population.

Yet, this system design depended on a relatively slow rate of change and a future that demanded largely predictable knowledge and application of taught skills. Today’s students face a much different future than the one imagined when our schools were designed. What one knows is only as important as how it can serve to build new learning. Accumulating names, dates, facts, sequences, and set procedures is no longer enough to define an educated person.

Unless students develop a robust set of skills that help them to develop relevant understanding, make useful connections, generate new ideas, and learn, they are likely to find themselves unprepared for their future. This reality suggests a new relationship between the content students learn and the skills they develop.

We cannot continue to teach content using the approaches we have relied on in the past and still have adequate time and opportunity for students to learn the life and learning skills they will need. Attempting to do so risks not succeeding with either challenge. Meanwhile, most of the tests students take that judge their learning still measure traditional content, not learning skills. In other words, the accountability system still favors the old focus and approaches.

So, how can we think about this dilemma in a way that suggests some reasonable answers and responsible strategies? The answer cannot be to ignore the need for students to develop life and learning skills and respond only to traditional accountability measures. Doing so will shortchange our students and our shared future. It is also not a responsible choice to ignore our history and fail to give students the foundational information and knowledge they need to understand who they are and how they relate to others and the larger world. Multiple reform efforts have also taught us that attempting to teach skills in isolation leaves students without the insight and judgment necessary to apply the skills they learn effectively in novel, evolving, and complex situations.

The answer lies in thinking about content as the context for learning skills. Solving real problems, analyzing human conflicts and challenges, and designing solutions can be the purpose for and value of learning complex skills and learning strategies. Content can bring the experience and utility of learning to life.

Thinking about the relationship between content and skills in this way can help us to fulfill the dual responsibilities of building the knowledge students need to possess as citizens and nurturing the skills they need to be learners for life. This approach allows students to learn how to access the knowledge they do not need to carry in their heads, while remaining vigilant about false, misleading, and manipulative information. Despite the prevailing assessment bias in favor of content, students can build crucial life and learning skills without sacrificing performance on the high-stakes tests to which they are subjected.

Clearly, there is more to sorting, or more accurately, re-sorting the relationship between traditional curriculum content and life and learning skills than has been discussed here. What questions and ideas do you have about this crucial relationship? What answers have you discovered that help you to address the dual responsibilities of teaching content and nurturing skills?

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